• Trump Has Gotten Bored With Venezuela

    This is a helluva headline:

    It doesn’t say that Trump has “changed his strategy” or “lost faith in the opposition” or anything like that. It just says that he figured it would be easy peasy to get everyone to cave in to his bluster, and it wasn’t—so he doesn’t care anymore. And of course he “chewed out his staff” over this, because nothing is ever Donald’s fault. Such a charming guy.

  • Raw Data: Here’s What the Trump Tariffs Are Costing You

    Here are quarterly tariff receipts over the past few years:

    Tariffs normally run about $40 billion per quarter. In the latest quarter, thanks to Trump’s tariffs, that was $35 billion higher. This amounts to $140 billion per year.

    All of this is paid by US companies that import goods and then passed along to consumers as higher prices. There are currently 130 million households in the United States, which means that Trump’s tariffs are costing the average household in America more than $1,000 per year.

    It’s actually more than that, since the tariffs probably also have a negative impact on wages and GDP growth. But without even doing any fancy math to account for that, we’ve still got a simple cost of $1,000 per household to pay for Trump’s trade war. I hope all those working-class folks who voted for Trump because he said he’d look out for them are starting to figure out that it was a con all along. A thousand dollars is a lot of money.

  • Why Is Donald Trump Hellbent on Dismantling OPM?

    Last year the Trump administration unveiled its plan to reorganize government. I think every president puts together a plan like this, and it was the usual collection of good ideas, bad ideas, and fantasies that would never get through Congress.

    One of the proposals was to reorganize the Office of Personnel Management. Part of this was uncontroversial: everyone agreed that it was a good idea to get OPM out of the business of background checks and instead move this function into the Department of Defense. That’s already a done deal. This left two things:

    • Kill off OPM as a separate agency and make it into a department within GSA.
    • Move its policy shop into the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, where it would report to the president.

    It’s not really clear how this would help anything on an operational level. The boss of OPM would get a new boss, and that’s about all. On the policy side, however, it would continue the process of consolidating ever more power into the OMB, where the president has tighter control of it. Even Republicans were unsure that any of this was a good idea, so the planned change hasn’t yet gone anywhere. Today, the Washington Post reports that Trump intends to play hardball over this:

    The Trump administration is threatening to furlough — and possibly lay off — 150 employees at the federal personnel agency if Congress blocks its plan to eliminate the department. The Office of Personnel Management is preparing to send the career employees home without pay starting on Oct. 1, according to an internal briefing document obtained by The Washington Post. The employees could formally be laid off after 30 days, administration officials confirmed.

    ….[Margaret Weichert, the acting head of OPM] has told her staff that she is “planning to play chicken with Congress,” according to three officials familiar with the comments.

    The alleged reason for these furloughs is that OPM used to make money on background checks, and since they’re losing that money they’ll need to get rid of some people. However, Congress has already agreed to make up this revenue loss, so that’s not the real issue. Nor is it plausible that anyone in the White House cares all that much about whether the government’s health and retirement plans are managed by a standalone agency vs. a department of GSA. So what’s the real reason the Trumpies are fighting so hard over this?

    The only plausible rationale still remaining is the move of OPM’s policymaking function into the White House. Apparently Trump really, really wants direct control over personnel policies, and he’s willing to go to the mats over this. But is that a good idea? If another president had suggested it, I might shrug and figure it’s just part of the steady centralization of executive power in the White House. Trump, however, has made it pretty clear that he doesn’t like it when he’s not allowed to hire and fire whoever he wants, whenever he wants. More control over civil service policy might be just the ticket to eliminating anyone who might get in his way.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is a wild California rose. It’s a very pretty thing, very fragrant, and allegedly makes good tea. In fact, it sounds like an all-around super plant: “It provides excellent nesting habitat for songbirds. It will attract butterflies. Its long blooming season will be a compliment to all the plants nearby. After the bloom season, wild rose hips persist on the plant and are an important food source for birds and mammals.” Maybe we should get some for our garden.

    April 20, 2019 — Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Orange County, California
  • There Is No Such Thing as Clean Coal

    The final version of President Trump’s jihad against clean power has been released:

    Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has branded the rewrite as the Affordable Clean Energy rule and designed it to fulfill the president’s campaign promise to bring back the coal industry.

    This kind of Orwellian branding has been around for a long time, but this really nails the whole genre. Clean energy = more coal. It’s the official version of Trump’s belief that if he says “clean coal” often enough, then coal will actually become clean.

    I don’t know if this is just a routine lie on his part or if he’s really such a dunce that he doesn’t realize there’s no such thing. I don’t think anyone knows. But if Trump’s plan goes into effect, thousands more people will die and gigatons more carbon will be spewed into the air. And the jobs? They’ll keep declining because the cheapest coal is strip-mined out west, where it’s mostly done by machines. But I don’t suppose Trump knows that either.

  • How Is California Doing? Really?

    Typhus is on the rise in California, and this has prompted Victor Davis Hanson to conclude that California is now a third-world country:

    If someone predicted half a century ago that a Los Angeles police station or indeed L.A. City Hall would be in danger of periodic, flea-borne infectious typhus outbreaks, he would have been considered unhinged.

    This is obviously not one of the things we put on our tourist brochures, but the fact is that typhus is still around in places that have warm climates:

    Climate change has made the southwest United States warmer, which in turn has made it more congenial to R. rattus and Xenopsylla cheopis. This has caused an increase in typhus cases in places like California and Texas. Not a good thing. But also not really a sign that California is slipping into the third world.

    In any case, this got me curious. I hate to intrude with facts and stuff, but how is California doing? We go through this exercise periodically since California seems to drive conservatives crazy by being both liberal and successful, but I’ve never really gone much beyond a look at California’s economy. What about other measures?

    There’s no question that California has a growing divide between our upper classes (Silicon Valley) and lower classes (recent immigrants from Mexico). But this is a sign of vitality on both ends. The real question is how we deal with it and how it affects our performance on things like health and crime. Let’s take a look. It’s not always easy to figure out what the best measures are, or how to get reliable data on things, but I promise that I tried my best to come up with reasonable choices and to publish the charts regardless of what they show. Here we go.

    First off, here’s median household income in California compared to the entire country:

    We took a hit during the housing bust, but California has generally held its own over the past two decades. In fact, it’s gained a bit on the rest of the country. And keep in mind that this is median income, so it’s not skewed by all the tech billionaires.

    How about health? That’s tough. You can’t measure life expectancy for a single state, since we all move around too much, and things like cancer or heart disease don’t tell you much. So I settled on infant mortality. That affects rich and poor alike, and tells you a lot about the health care system available to all. Here it is for 2017:

    This seems distinctly first-worldish. How about crime compared to the rest of the country:

    This is not so great. California’s violent crime rate had been declining toward national levels for many years, but that reversed during the Great Recession. And property crime has been increasing. Crime in California is hardly at hellhole levels, but it’s definitely above average.

    Next up is education. High school graduation rates are highly dependent on poverty levels, so to get a better look at how a state’s schools are doing you need to look at how well they’re doing just with their poorer kids. Here are the high-school graduation rates for low-income students:

    California ranks 15th. We should do better, but this is not bad. At the university level, here are the total degrees granted (AA through PhD) as a share of the entire country:

    The earliest data I could find was from 1993-94, and since then California’s share of degrees granted has increased steadily. How about roads? Hanson says they’re in “near ruins.” I live in California too and I can tell you that this is Trumpian-level nonsense. Still, I’ll grant that our roads aren’t always in great shape, which is why we recently passed a multibillion dollar gas tax increase to fix them. But how can we put a number to this? The best I can do is the letter grade that the American Society of Civil Engineers hands out to America’s infrastructure every year. This is not a great metric, since ASCE pretty much gives everyone a C, but in the spirit of passing along whatever I find, here it is:

    According to ASCE, California is in that great middle-of-the-pack C- range. Now how about taxes? It’s true that California is a high-tax state. By some measures, it’s the highest tax state. However, this is mostly because we have very high taxes on the wealthy, which helps reduce some of that third-worldish income inequality that Hanson doesn’t like. So let’s look instead at how progressive California’s tax system is:

    California has the most progressive tax system in the country. Put another way, California does less to make inequality worse than any other state. But how well do we spend that money? Hanson spends a fair amount of time grousing about the California DMV, which is an honest pasttime for any red-blooded American citizen. And it’s true that we had some widely-reported problems with DMV wait times recently, along with a wee mistake in our switch to RealID driver’s licenses. But more generally, how good or bad is California’s DMV, really? I didn’t have much hope of finding anything on that, but the internet is vast and it turns out that someone has conducted a poll of user satisfaction. Here are the top and bottom DMVs:

    What else? In terms of public corruption cases, California ranks 34th. Our net in-migration rate is 0.9 per 1,000 population, which is dead average. GDP per capita has gone up 33 percent since 2000, compared to 22 percent for the rest of the country. California’s air has gotten better, its water has gotten cleaner, and its power has gotten greener. We have plenty of problems, but most of them, like homelessness and expensive housing, stem from the fact that California is doing so well.

    One of the problems here is that Victor Davis Hanson lives in the Central Valley. It’s one of California’s poorest places, but the real problem is that it’s one of California’s reddest places. It’s solid Republican in a way that makes Orange County look positively enlightened:

    Because of this, the Central Valley doesn’t look like the rest of California: it’s poor, and the white people there don’t feel like spending any money to make things better. This mean the roads often aren’t kept up and the schools don’t get much money and the housing is wretched. So not only does Hanson have an ideological axe to grind against California, he lives in a place that’s very much not like the rest of the state. It’s what states look like when they’re rural and deep red.

  • Here’s Why Prediction Markets Aren’t Used For Anything Important

    Tyler Cowen has a question:

    Why doesn’t business use more prediction markets? They would seem to make sense, right? Bet on ideas. Aggregate information. We’ve all read Hayek.

    Hal Varian’s answer is that the most valuable predictions are very sensitive, and you don’t want those to be public. My answer is different: prediction markets are too easy to game. They work decently as long as no one really cares about the answer, but as soon as someone does care—i.e., someone can make a lot of money from influencing the results—then the prediction market will be rigged. The only way to stop that from happening is to make the market expensive, but then you lose almost all your players.

    It’s hard to rig the actual market because the cost of rigging it is usually higher than the amount of money you can make from rigging it. But as soon as that cost drops so much as a nano-penny lower, someone, somewhere will decide to screw with it.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is . . . a lizard. I have no idea what kind, but up close it looks kind of like The Thing, doesn’t it? I deliberately oversaturated the picture so you could see the interesting blues and teals reflecting off its scales. Note that I took this on my ill-fated trip to photograph Ortega Falls, so the trip wasn’t a total waste.

    UPDATE: It’s a Western fence lizard. In this picture, however, it’s on a rock, not a fence.

    March 18, 2019 — Cleveland National Forest, California
  • Where Are All the GOP Defense Hawks?


    I guess we now have an acting-acting defense secretary:

    President Trump on Tuesday withdrew the nomination of Patrick M. Shanahan to be the permanent defense secretary, leaving the Pentagon in transition at a time of escalating tensions with Iran and questions about the role of the military at the border with Mexico….The move leaves the Pentagon leader at a time of escalating tensions with Iran after attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration has blamed Iran for the explosions that damaged the two tankers.

    In a Twitter post, the president said the withdrawal was the decision of Mr. Shanahan, who has served for six months as acting defense secretary. But it is the president’s prerogative to withdraw the nomination.

    This is nuts. Jim Mattis left at the end of 2018. It’s now been 180 days since he announced his resignation and Trump still has no idea who he wants as his Secretary of Defense. Shanahan was just a convenient stand-in, and his replacement is another convenient stand-in. Are the Republican ranks of defense hawks really so depleted that there’s not a single conservative left who’s suitable to run the Pentagon?