• Dem Focus Should Be on Military Aid, Quid Pro Quo

    Regular reader AM writes today about something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. I’ll let him go first since he has family and friends in middle America:

    My concern is that Dem messengers of all stripes; chyrons on MSNBC and CNN; and print media sources are now all but uniformally stating things like “No White House dinner for Ukraine until investigation into Bidens.” But the screaming horror of it all was extortion (i.e. no military aid/Javelins for you till you do us a “favor”).

    Now my own anecdotal research with my veteran, right-leaning friends back in real America is that if you don’t prove and emphasize the denial of lethal aid it sounds like something for Emily Post to suss out. I can’t tell you how CRITICAL this component is and I think it applies to a lot more than my Marine, combat vet friends.

    I have a related but similar complaint about the widespread belief on the left that the quid pro quo doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Trump asked Ukraine for help investigating a political opponent. The fact that he offered something in return is neither here nor there.

    Legally, that might be right. Politically, it’s dead wrong, and impeachment is a political process. It’s absolutely critical that Trump is shown to have withheld vital military aid to an ally unless they agreed to help Trump in his reelection campaign. And like AM, I agree it’s the military assistance that’s key. No one really cares about visits to the White House, which are widely viewed as political favors in the first place.

    Obviously the news is coming down on us like a firehose these days, and there are lots of things to report. That’s fine. All of them are worth following up. But underneath it all, we should all be focused 24/7 on one key issue: Donald Trump withheld military aid from an ally unless they would help him smear a political opponent in order to gain a leg up in his reelection campaign.

  • We Had the Quid, Now We Have the Quo

    Prosecutor General of Ukraine Ruslan Ryaboshapka.Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via ZUMA

    Ukraine has gotten its $400 million in military assistance and its visit to the White House, where President Zelensky dutifully reported that he had felt no pressure from the Trump administration to open an investigation into the Biden family. So this, I suppose, is just an amazing coincidence:

    Ukraine’s new chief prosecutor said Friday his office will conduct an “audit” of an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that had recruited Hunter Biden for its board.

    Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka reiterated at a news conference Friday that he knows of no evidence of criminal activity by Biden. He said that he is aware of at least 15 investigations that may have touched on Burisma, its owner Nikolai Zlochevsky, an associate named Serhiy Zerchenko, and Biden, and that all will be reviewed. He said no foreign or Ukrainian official has been in touch with him to request this audit.

    See? Ryaboshapka has been on vacation on Mars for the past few months and just got back. And when he did, he immediately turned around to his deputy and said, “Hey, we really need to audit the investigations of Burisma. It just seems like the right thing to do.”

    Then he picked up a paper and saw what had been going on. But, honest man that he is, he’s going ahead anyway. After all, his decision had absolutely nothing to do with anyone asking about this.

    Snark aside, I suppose this is a good thing. Ryaboshapka will probably find nothing especially wrong with Burisma that isn’t known already, and he’s sure to give both Joe and Hunter Biden a clean bill of health. I doubt that will assuage the fever swamp, but it will help everyone else.

  • Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

    The American economy gained 136,000 jobs last month. We need 90,000 new jobs just to keep up with population growth, which means that net job growth clocked in at a sluggish but decent 46,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate dropped to 3.5 percent, the lowest rate in half a century.

    The numbers below the surface were decent too. Employment was up, unemployment was down, and only a small number of people dropped out of the labor force—probably accounted for by older folks retiring. The labor participation rate stayed steady.

    At the same time, as you can see, the trend line recently has been steadily downward for the past year or so. If this continues at its current rate, we’ll hit zero net job growth in the first quarter of 2020.

    Blue-collar wages grew just slightly faster than inflation. There’s still a little bit of wage pressure in the economy, but it’s fading away.

  • Text Messages Dive Deeper Into Trump’s Extortion of Ukraine

    The House Intelligence Committee has obtained a series of text messages that went back and forth this summer between the acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and two of Donald Trump’s roving troubleshooters for Ukraine, Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker. These came after Rudy Giuliani had already spent months trying to get the Ukrainians to open an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden.

    The following text was sent just before the now-infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and the new Ukrainian president, but after Trump had put a hold on Ukrainian military assistance and told his aides to lie to Congress about why he did it:

    Volker is clearly saying that a visit to the White House is contingent on Ukraine opening an investigation—and convincing Trump that the investigation will really happen. After the phone call, Volker and Gordon Sondland are dispatched to help the Ukrainians “navigate” Trump’s demands. Two weeks later, we get this:

    President Trump “really wants” the investigation opened. Does the president of Ukraine know this? “Yep.”

    Sondland goes on to suggest that they draft a statement for the president of Ukraine to deliver, thus publicly committing him to an investigation of the Bidens. A week later Sondland asks if they still want an “unequivocal statement” drafted and Volker says yes. A couple of weeks after that Ambassador Taylor asks about the plans for a White House visit:

    Note that Taylor is a career diplomat. Sondland is a political appointee and a Trump loyalist. He obviously thinks it’s unwise to discuss this via text message.

    Taylor and Sondland have their phone call, but obviously Taylor is still under the impression that military assistance is being directly held hostage to investigating the Bidens:

    Sondland the loyalist dutifully says no, no, no; it’s not a quid pro quo. Nevertheless, he continues to think it unwise to discuss the details of what it is via text.

    The upshot of all this is that it’s crystal clear to everyone that Trump is truly obsessed with getting Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Both a White House visit and military assistance are being held hostage to this. Volker knows it and Taylor knows it, while Sondland plays the loyalist role of explaining what the pretext is supposed to be: that all Trump wants is a commitment to running a clean government.

    Adding all this to the transcript of the July 25 phone call makes it obvious to anyone over the age of five what’s going on. But will it matter? Both the White House and conservative media have already taken the position that, sure, Trump extorted Ukraine to investigate a political opponent, but the Bidens totally deserved it because they’re so corrupt. No way is there anything impeachable about that.

    So far, Republicans in Congress remain unmoved, text messages or no. Tick tock.

  • White Judges and Donald Trump

    The Center for American Progress released a report today about the diversity of the federal judiciary, and you will be unsurprised to learn that it continues to be more male and more white than the general population. You can read the whole report here, but I want to highlight just a single chart:

    As you can see, Republican presidents tend to appoint fewer nonwhite judges than Democrats, which is perfectly understandable. Republicans want to appoint conservative judges, but nonwhite judges tend to be more liberal than average. There just aren’t a whole lot of conservative nonwhite judges for Republicans to choose from.

    However, as you can also see, Republican presidents have nonetheless produced steadily higher numbers of nonwhite judges through the years—until you get to Donald Trump. Then, for the first time ever, the share of nonwhite judges is lower than the previous Republican president.

    It’s tempting to roll your eyes at this and mutter “Duh!” under your breath. But not so fast. You see, one thing that pretty much everyone agrees about is that Trump himself plays no part in his administration’s judicial appointments. Not even a tiny one. The whole operation, until very recently, was run by Don McGahn using lists of candidates mostly prepared by the Federalist Society. And there’s no special reason to think that either McGahn or the Federalist Society share Trump’s racial views.

    So why the sudden drop in nonwhite judicial appointees? It almost certainly has nothing to do with Trump, who probably couldn’t even name any of his nominees, let alone express opinions about them. Why have McGahn and the Federalist Society been so halfhearted about finding nonwhite judges, even though they’re plainly available and it’s plainly good PR to nominate them?

    I don’t know. However, one possibility is that the outlier isn’t McGahn, but George Bush. For a Republican, he was, perhaps, unusually committed to finding nonwhite judges. By this hypothesis, McGahn is right on the trendline of Republican appointments over time, and there’s nothing to explain.

    Any other ideas?

  • Lunchtime Photo

    You may recall that six months ago I posted a picture of Chapman Avenue at sunset. Chapman is a major thoroughfare around these parts that runs due west for much of its length, and there’s a nice hill at one end that allows for good picture taking. I was there at the spring equinox to try and get a picture of the sun setting directly over the street. Sort of a suburban version of Manhattanhenge.

    As it happens, I got there a few days too late and the sunset was already too far north of west to get what I wanted. However, I marked my calendar for the autumn equinox and figured I’d try again. This time I got there a bit early, and circumstances conspired to prevent me from going back. So once again the sunset is a little off center.

    However, there was less haze this time around and I discovered that in the far distance is not just the Pacific Ocean, but the hills of the Palos Verdes peninsula. So even if I timed it perfectly, I’d never get the sun precisely over the street just as it dipped below the horizon. My quest was a fruitless one all along.

    But there are other streets. Perhaps I’ll try one of them next spring.

    September 21, 2019 — Orange, California
  • EITC or $15 Minimum Wage? Why Not Both?

    The Earned-Income Tax Credit is one of the largest social welfare programs run by the federal government. It’s available only to people who work—primarily those with children—and takes the form of a tax refund that generally amounts to a few thousand dollars each year.

    Conventional wisdom has long held that the EITC motivates people to work, but a new study suggests this isn’t so. Dylan Matthews says today that this undermines conservative support for the program:

    Conservatives and business interests have long grudgingly tolerated or outright supported modest expansions of the EITC because of its tie to work: It isn’t welfare, but an earned benefit that helps the economy by increasing labor force participation. If it doesn’t help labor force participation, that rationale goes away.

    Let’s unpack this a bit. What it means is that the business community likes the EITC because they think it increases the size of the labor force. This in turn pushes wages down. In other words, part of the EITC is captured by corporations: they get to cut wages, which are are then made up by the EITC.

    As you can imagine, this is a black mark against the EITC among liberals. Why should corporations end up getting a piece of a program meant to help the poor? If, instead, it turns out that the EITC has little impact on labor force participation, that’s a good thing. It means that the poor are getting 100 percent of the benefit.

    Back in the days of old, this would probably be a net political negative: maintaining bipartisan support is a good thing even if it costs a bit in terms of help for the working poor. But these are not the olden days, and there hasn’t been bipartisan support for the EITC in ages. So I’d call this unalloyed good news if it’s true. It means the EITC’s benefits are going exactly where we want them, and we could even sever the connection to work if we wanted to. Republicans wouldn’t support this, but so what? They wouldn’t support it anyway.

    In other semi-related news, the New York Fed recently completed a detailed study of minimum wage hikes in New York state. There have been loads of similar studies before, but most of them have focused on fairly small changes in the minimum wage, which still leaves us in the dark about the effect of larger changes. This study, however, tracks a minimum wage increase of nearly 50 percent over the course of six years by comparing border counties in New York (which saw an increase) with those in Pennsylvania (which didn’t). Here’s the result:

    As the authors says, New York’s minimum wage increase “appears to have had a positive effect on average wages but no discernible effect on employment.”

    This is tentatively good news for the $15 minimum wage campaign, since it suggests that even sizeable increases in the minimum wage don’t reduce employment. Keep in mind, however, that it’s still tentative for at least two reasons. First, it’s just one study. Second, it took place entirely during an economic expansion. The effect of a big minimum wage increase might be quite different during a recession.

    Bottom line: it appears that both the EITC and the $15 minimum wage are pretty good programs for helping the working poor. What’s more, both have different pluses and minuses and they complement each other pretty well. Given what we know, progressives ought to support them both.

  • Today in the Fever Swamp: China!

    This morning’s big impeachment-related news is that President Trump publicly called on China to investigate Hunter Biden over—

    Well, it doesn’t matter what it’s over, does it? As usual, there’s no evidence that either of the Bidens did anything wrong except in the fever swamps of Sean Hannity and Foxland. But Trump marinates in that fever swamp these days, and the fever swamp says that Hunter Biden used his father’s pull to coerce a Chinese stake in an investment fund he owned. If you’re interested, you may read an appropriately breathless account of Biden perfidy by the author of Clinton Cash and other conspiratorial books here.

    So why is Trump blathering about this today? It’s not because China is going to investigate it. And it’s not because anyone outside of the fever swamp believes it. He’s doing it for a couple of reasons. First, he’s showing solidarity with the swamp. Second, he’s sending a signal that conservative media should be all over this.

    That’s it.

  • ATM Fees Have Been Pretty Stable Over the Past Decade

    Axios published a chart today showing the evolution of ATM fees since 1998 and it’s been making the rounds. What do I have to contribute to this? Just the usual: adjusting it for inflation since it’s a time series of money. Here’s the real average ATM fee over the past couple of decades:

    In this case, adjusting for inflation genuinely shows you something that you can’t really see in the original chart: virtually all of the increase came in the period 1998-2010. Over the past decade, ATM fees have risen only 6 percent. That may or may not be of interest to you, but it’s certainly worth knowing if you’re planning to mouth off about greedy banks or somesuch.