• Lunchtime Photo

    This is last night’s occultation of Mars by the moon. This was the best picture I got, taken two minutes after Mars came out from behind the moon. I added the gray circle to show where the disk of the moon would be if you could see it.

    I had a better picture in mind for you, but I was sadly defeated by a big ol’ fog bank that covered the entire sky within 50 miles of my house. I went home with my tail between my legs, but by 4:29 am, when the occultation ended, there was a break in the clouds and I could see the moon from my backyard. There was still a slight haze, but both moon and Mars ended up tolerably sharp anyway.

    Note that this is a composite photo. The moon required a very different exposure than Mars, so I took two identical pictures with different exposures and then stitched them together.

    February 18, 2020 — Irvine, California
  • Hey, How About a Few Pardons For People We’ve Never Heard Of?

    Here’s the latest from Trumpland:

    Trump also pardoned Edward DeBartolo, a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, and maybe Michael Milken too. Trump was a little vague about that.

    I have no special opinion about whether any of these people deserve a pardon—though Kerik sure as hell seems an unlikely choice. What I do object to is the random pardoning of well-known people who happen to catch Trump’s eye. There are lots and lots of ordinary schlubs who deserve a pardon every bit as much as these more famous folks, but they’ll never get one.

    UPDATE: Yes, Mike Milken got a pardon.

    Additionally, Trump issued full pardons to Ariel Friedler, Paul Pogue, David Safavian and Angela Stanton. And he commuted sentences for three others: Tynice Nicole Hall, Crystal Munoz and Judith Negron.

    Ariel Friedler hacked into his competitors’ computers. Paul Pogue filed false income tax statements. David Safavian is a Republican lawyer who was convicted of perjury in connection with the Abramoff corruption scandal. Angela Stanton “spent time in Georgia prisons for things like felony embezzlement, theft and fraud” but since her release in 2005 has become a best-selling author and the creator of Reclaim It Albany.

    Tynice Nicole Hall was convicted of conspiracy and drug offenses involving powder and crack cocaine because her boyfriend sold drugs out of her house. Crystal Munoz was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1000 kilograms of marijuana. Judith Negron received a 35-year sentence as part of a Medicare fraud racket.

  • America Got a Little Less Liberal Last Year

    Here’s a timely reminder from Gallup:

    Since 2018, the country has moved slightly to the right. As you can see, 37 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, and if you add in the one-third of moderates who are also pretty reliable conservatives (even if they don’t admit it), about 47 percent of the country is conservative. This means that Republicans can rely on a strategy of appealing solely to conservatives and still have a pretty good chance of winning.

    Democrats are in a far tougher position. Even if you add in the liberal fraction of moderates, only about 30 percent of Americans call themselves liberal. This means that if Democrats try to move left and appeal solely to liberals, they’re most likely doomed. This, not spinelessness, is the reason the Democratic Party spends so much time and energy trying to appeal to the center.

    But here’s another chart that, if anything, paints an even grimmer picture:

    After years of getting steadily more liberal, even Democrats themselves moved slightly to the right in 2019. A full half of them identify as conservative or moderate, up three points during a year consumed by Russia, Ukraine, and impeachment. This compares to only a quarter of Republicans who identify as liberal or moderate.

    My guess is that practically every ranking Democrat in the country, from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on down, have these charts stapled to their mental foreheads. It may seem sometimes as if they hate activists—and maybe they do—but more likely it’s just that necessity forces them to work off a framework of knowledge that activists can choose to ignore if they want. It’s unlikely that will change until Bernie Sanders or someone like him proves that these surveys are wrong and America is ready to elect a real lefty. Until then, the Democratic leadership will stick to the facts as they know them.

  • Mike Bloomberg Is Coming to a Debate Near You

    Sure, this guy likes Mike now. But will he still like Mike a week from now?Mehmet Demirci/ZUMA

    It’s crunch time for Mike Bloomberg:

    Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has qualified for Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas, the first time the billionaire will appear onstage alongside his Democratic presidential rivals.

    A national poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist released on Tuesday showed Mr. Bloomberg with 19 percent support among Democrats….The survey was the fourth national qualifying poll since mid-January that showed Mr. Bloomberg with at least 10 percent support, enough to earn him an invitation to the debate stage before the deadline of 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.

    Bloomberg has spent a gazillion dollars to achieve this result, which demonstrates two things. First, name recognition matters. Second, a lot of Democrats just aren’t very happy with the set of candidates they have to choose from at the moment.

    But money only goes so far. Ask Hillary Clinton. Name recognition only goes so far. Ask Joe Biden. And random dissatisfaction and curiosity only go so far. Ask Herman Cain and Ben Carson. Plenty of people have been in the position Bloomberg is in, and plenty of them have then imploded when they finally left their bubble and were forced to unmask themselves to a national audience. Bloomberg may genuinely appeal to Democrats yearning for a centrist candidate, but for everyone else he has so many soft spots it’s hard to count them.

    He’s a billionaire. He supported the Iraq War. He endorsed George W. Bush. He’s the face of stop-and-frisk. Women have accused him of misogynistic comments. He backed the New York Police Department’s campaign to spy on Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. He has no idea what caused the Great Recession. He opposed the Iran deal. He’s a strong backer of Israel. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of national policies that never get any play at a local level, and we haven’t heard yet from Bloomberg on these things because he’s controlled his media completely and hasn’t had to face hostile questioning in a national debate from reporters and fellow candidates.

    Now, who knows? Maybe Bloomberg will turn out to be a natural on the debate stage. Maybe he’ll rein in his natural impatience and charm the TV audience. Anything is possible. But the smart money says Bloomberg has a lot more to lose than to gain on Wednesday night.

  • Was the Republican Tax Cut a Big Nothingburger? Not Quite.

    Over at The Corner, Jim Geraghty passes along the results of a survey about the Republican tax cut of 2017:

    Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine surveyed 852 taxpayers in December about the tax cuts enacted in 2017, and how it affected their income taxes. The results will probably disappoint both fans and critics of the tax cuts. When asked how the 2017 tax changes affected their last return, 59 percent said, “my taxes remained the same,” 22 percent said they owed less, 19 percent said they owed more.

    I find this poll useful because none of the questions was about whether the respondent supported the tax cuts or thought they were a good idea, or how the respondent felt about President Trump or Congress….To hear a lot of Republicans tell it, the tax cuts put a lot more money in Americans’ wallets, and to hear a lot of Democrats tell it, the tax cuts were a disastrous giveaway to the rich that socked it to the middle class. Judging from these poll results, most Americans didn’t feel much of an impact either way.

    Two things. First, I don’t think liberals ever suggested that the tax cut would “sock it to the middle class.” Our contention was only that it wouldn’t do much of anything for the middle class, and the Kiplinger survey confirms that this is what happened.

    Second, a survey like this doesn’t catch the impact of these tax cuts on very high earners. Partly this is because high earners tend not to participate in telephone polls like this, and partly it’s because there aren’t very many of them in the first place. At a guess, the Kiplinger survey reached no more than 30 or 40 high earners at most. Even if every single one of them said that they owed less in taxes, that would affect the overall results by only two or three percentage points. You’d never notice it. However, the CBO provides this projection:

    As you can see, the entire bottom 95 percent got a tax cut of less than one percent—and even that’s misleading since it includes the imputed share of the corporate part of the tax cut. For somebody who pays a few thousand dollars in taxes, this amounts to thirty or forty bucks. That’s not enough to take your family out to a movie.

    But the affluent did much better. The top one percent may not affect the survey numbers, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make out pretty well. The average one-percenter earns nearly $2 million, which means that a 3 percent tax cut saves them about $40-50,000. Not bad!

    So if you look at the whole picture, it turns out that the Republican tax cut was indeed a huge giveaway to the rich, but did almost nothing for the middle class. And that’s exactly what liberals warned of.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    I think I’m finally going to post these pictures taken last year at Sumapaz National Park in Colombia. I’ve been oddly reluctant for a couple of reasons. First, I felt almost proprietary toward these little lagoons, as if they were my own private experience. They were breathtakingly gorgeous, but only at the very particular time I was there. A few days earlier or later and the water would have been different, the weather would have been different, and it would have looked nothing like this. I feel like I’m one of the few human beings ever to see it exactly like this.

    The other reason is that these photos simply don’t capture what it looked like in real life. Your mileage may vary, but I find that this doesn’t happen very often. In this case, however, the picture is a poor substitute for being there and drinking in the tiny, perfect little garden that the rain has made out of this miniature lagoon. If you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of something that’s pretty, but just that, all I can say is that you had to be there.

    These pictures are both of the same lagoon. They were taken from opposite ends.

    August 8, 2019 — Sumapaz National Park, Colombia
  • Yet More Kittens

    Should I break my promise yet again and show you more pictures of my mother’s kittens? I can’t help myself. Of course I should. I was over yesterday and took a batch of pictures while mama was taking a break from her squirming horde. It was hard to get all of them to show their faces to the camera at once, but eventually I did it. Sort of. This picture is a composite of the two best shots I got.

    For the record, in this picture they are just a bit over three weeks old.

  • Kitten Update

    As I said yesterday, I don’t plan on featuring my mother’s kittens again until next Friday. However, she took a picture with her iPad and I decided to convert it to black and white in the style of Edward Weston—which I’m sure he’d approve of. As you can see, the kittens have opened their eyes but have not yet climbed out of their box. They have peered out of the box, though, and are aware that there’s a whole different world out there. I don’t think it will be long before mom has a whole flock of kittens underfoot.

  • Mike Bloomberg Is About to Enter the Highly Dangerous Phase 3 of All Fresh, New Presidential Candidates

    Just a quick reminder: every primary features a series of interesting “new” candidates. This year Mike Bloomberg is one of them. If they have anything at all going for them,¹ they typically gain popularity at first when no one really knows anything about them; they peak when the media starts running mildly critical stories about them; and then they decline as the oppo starts and the media starts printing the “investigations” it’s been working on for the previous few weeks. Here is a helpful diagram drawn on the back of a paper napkin:

    Bloomberg is at the peak of the mostly nontoxic learning phase and just transitioning into the extremely toxic oppo/investigations phase. Today, for example, the New York Times is running a moderately combative story about Bloomberg’s philanthropy while the Washington Post is running a very damaging article about sexist comments and a hostile environment for women at his eponymous company. Meanwhile, the oppo folks are busily dumping audio of Bloomberg making arguably racist comments about stop-and-frisk. Bloomberg is highly likely to lose some of his support over the next couple of weeks, after which he will either recover or he won’t. It all depends on how well everyone else is doing and how good a job reporters and oppo researchers do in digging up damaging material. In any case, there’s no need to panic just yet.

    FWIW, this is also approximately where Amy Klobuchar is at. She’s a little less vulnerable than Bloomberg since she’s been in high-profile campaigns before and probably doesn’t have a lot of skeletons waiting to tumble out of her closet, but this is also the stage where people who are sort of interested in her start to learn more about positions she’s taken that maybe they aren’t too thrilled with. Stay tuned!

    ¹For example, $50 billion.

  • Forget “Day One.” Ask Your Candidate What They’ll *Start* on Day One.

    Killing standards for tailpipe emissions in cars and trucks may seem easy, but you can only do it if you can show there's an actual reason for it. A stroke of a pen won't do the job.Kevin Drum

    Presidential candidates often talk about what they’d do on “Day One.” This is dumb. There’s very little of any substance that presidents can do by executive order on their first day. Take Donald Trump. On his first day he signed an order aimed at “minimizing the economic burden” of Obamacare. It was meaningless. Two days later he pulled out of the TPP trade deal. This was not meaningless at all, but Trump could only do it because we were never part of TPP in the first place.

    A better question to ask candidates is: What executive actions would you begin on Day One? You see, it’s not just a stroke of a pen for most things. Back in 1946, after FDR had vastly expanded the federal government with an alphabet soup of new agencies, Congress passed the Administrative Procedures Act. The basic idea behind the APA was this: after the New Deal and World War II it was obvious that big government was here to stay, and this meant that only executive agencies had the manpower and knowledge to keep rules and regulations up to date in a world that changed relentlessly. But if that was the case, then Congress wanted to make sure that presidents couldn’t just arbitrarily change those rules whenever they felt like it. So the APA put in place specific procedures that had to be followed. In particular, agencies were not allowed to change rules “arbitrarily or capriciously.”

    Long story short, this means that most regulations of any real importance take 3-4 years to get through the stages of research, drafting, public comment, and publication of the final text. If you want to make sure that something takes effect during a term of office, you’d better start the wheels turning within your first year. President Obama’s new fuel economy standards, for example, were announced in May 2009 but weren’t finalized until August 2012. Lawsuits can drag things out even further. Obama announced the Clean Power Plan in June 2014, but it was still waiting for a ruling in the DC Circuit Court in 2017, at which time Trump’s EPA asked for and received a stay pending its own review. At that point it was effectively dead. Obama had waited too long to get it solidly in place.

    Over at the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer has a good piece about how this all works—or doesn’t. When Trump took office, he immediately decided to weaken Obama’s fuel economy standards. The problem was that those standards had been finalized years before and were not the target of lawsuits. The only way to change them was to go through the entire regulatory process as defined by the APA.

    Luckily for us, Trump is an idiot. Or, more precisely, he likes to hire idiots who are eager to feed him happy talk about how easy it will be to do what he wants. As a result, no one bothered to perform the kind of rigorous analysis that’s required to finalize this kind of thing:

    To change a federal rule, the executive branch must do its homework and publish an economic study arguing why the update is necessary. But Trump’s official justification for SAFE is honeycombed with errors. The most dramatic is that NHTSA’s model mixed up supply and demand: The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018….Once this and other major mistakes are fixed, all of SAFE’s safety benefits vanish, according to a recent peer-reviewed analysis in Science.

    ….The errors they and other independent analysts found are staggering in their scale. At one point, the NHTSA team forgot to divide by four. Elsewhere, it used bad data, claiming that, in the future, there will be fewer of certain types of fuel-saving engines than there are on the road already. But these errors pale in comparison to NHTSA’s insertion of millions of “phantom vehicles” onto American roads.

    ….Last month, [Tom] Carper, the Democratic senator from Delaware, alleged that a new version of the NHTSA study admits that SAFE will impose $34 billion of costs on the American economy. (NHTSA had once promised $230 billion in net benefits.) The new study also admits that SAFE will cost consumers an extra $1,400 at the pump on average—and that SAFE will not save hundreds of lives a year, as it once claimed, Carper said.

    If, in fact, the Trump administration performed a shoddy analysis that, when corrected, shows that his proposal has no actual benefits, it’s unlikely to pass judicial review. That pesky Administrative Procedures Act doesn’t allow Trump to arbitrarily change published regulations just because he wants to thumb his nose at Obama. But that’s what he did, and his appointees were happy to whomp up a draft proposal that used made-up numbers to justify whatever the boss wanted. Apparently they didn’t realize that this isn’t allowed.

    Trump’s rules are in limbo right now. It’s possible that some kind of compromise will be reached that both California and the big carmakers will accept. If that happens, and there are no lawsuits, then judicial review won’t matter. If not, it will end up in court. And it will probably lose.