• Saudis Finally Make the Effort to Invent a Lie

    Here’s the latest on the mysterious death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

    Uh huh. I guess we should at least be grateful that the Saudis are now demonstrating enough respect for world opinion to make up a lie. It’s slightly better than telling us all to go fuck ourselves, which has been the basic Saudi story up until now.


  • The Inflation Rate is Holding Pretty Steady These Days

    Apropos of nothing in particular except the tedium of today’s news, here’s a chart that shows not the historical growth of inflation, but the acceleration of inflation. That is, the growth of the growth rate from year to year. To make the chart readable, I’ve eliminated a couple of recent years with gigantic up and down spikes:

    Even during the 1975-80 era, there are only a few years of consecutive positive acceleration. Here’s the same chart on a monthly basis since the end of the Great Recession:

    Once again, I’ve removed 2015, which was weirdly spiky, in order to provide a better overall view of the past eight years. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any sustained acceleration worth worrying about during the entire period. There’s about six months of consecutive positive acceleration starting in 2018, but the numbers are small and then dropped away in August and September. It looks like everything is pretty well under control for now.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    New York City was muggy and cloudy when I was there last month, which meant that it was impossible to shoot a really good skyline picture. Still, I’d never been to the top of the Empire State Building as an adult, so I went up and took a few shots anyway. This one is a panorama of three photos stitched together, looking uptown toward Central Park a little after 11 pm. Because the picture wasn’t great to begin with, I did sort of a half-ass job of the stitching, which means that you can amuse yourself by trying to suss out where the stitches are. Have fun!

    September 13, 2018 — New York City
  • Winning Makes Everything OK

    Olivier Douliery/CNP via ZUMA

    This is not the first time Donald Trump has said something like this:

    STAHL: You go out and you go to Mississippi….And you mimicked Professor Blasey Ford. You mimicked her.

    TRUMP: Had I not made that speech, we would not have won. I was just saying she didn’t seem to know anything.

    ….STAHL: Do you think you treated her with respect?

    TRUMP: I think so, yeah. I did.

    STAHL: But you seem to be saying that she lied.

    TRUMP: You know what? I’m not gonna get into it because we won. It doesn’t matter. We won.

    Compare and contrast with Trump’s working motto:

    People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you.

    And yet his statements keep getting taken seriously. Why?

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 12 October 2018

    It is Hilbert’s turn at stardom this week, and he obliged by jumping onto one of the new cabinets in our closet. As you can see, he was seriously contemplating a jump to the next level, something he’s successfully done before, but this time he didn’t have the energy. Instead he just plonked himself down and rolled over, displaying his magnificent belly for a nice tummy rub. And really, there’s nothing on the top shelf worth jumping after. No cat food, anyway.

    And now, if you’ll look up a bit and demonstrate a wee bit more energy than Hilbert, you’ll see a short message from our CEO, Monika Bauerlein. (She’s cheating, of course, since it links to a much longer message. That’s a journalist for you.) I’ll add a little something to it: I would love your donation of $5. But I would love you twice as much for a donation of $10. And I would love you ten times as much for a donation of $50. And here’s an offer for you: Make a donation of $500 or more (tax deductible!), and I’ll send you an unframed (but still ready for hanging) 11×17 print¹ of any Lunchtime Photo or Friday Catblogging you want. Just email me your address and a URL for the photo, and you’ll get it in a couple of weeks or so.

    ¹Approximately. The exact size depends on the cropping.

  • Chart of the Day: The Latest on Brett Kavanaugh

    A new ABC poll conducted by Langer Research Associates confirms the huge gender gap in Republicans’ handling of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation:

    Only 35 percent of women approve of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, 13 points behind men. And 58 percent want Congress to continue investigating him, 11 points more than men. These aren’t the biggest gender differences ever recorded on a political issue, but they’re pretty big, especially for something that’s opened a lot of raw wounds just a month before an election.

    And I want to repeat something I alluded to a few days ago: Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to use this issue loud and hard. Republicans are pushing the notion that Democrats have turned into some kind of lawless mob, but that’s just politics. Democrats should cool it on stuff like impeachment or Russia probe stuff that goes way beyond the evidence, both of which really are kind of nutty at this point. But they don’t need this stuff anyway. Their economic policies are popular, while Republican policies are widely disliked. Likewise, their views on cultural issues are popular, as poll after poll has shown.

    The bottom line is this: Donald Trump took advantage of a brief moment in time when even center-right voters were open to Trump’s overt racism after eight years of President Obama, but that’s long since faded. Today, his views lose more votes among centrist voters than they win among his working-class white base. Obviously every congressional district is different, and Democrats don’t have a license to go crazy. But they should be unafraid to vigorously promote liberal views on race, gender, abortion, and immigration. Republicans are trying desperately to pretend that this will hurt Democrats more than help them, but their internal pollsters know better. Donald Trump has done nothing for the working class with his corporate tax cuts and his tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. At the same time, his endless “lock her up” rallies are turning off everyone except the folks who are already big fans.

    Meanwhile, Democrats are running on retaining the Obamacare ban on pre-existing conditions; humane comprehensive policies on immigration; single-payer health care; a $15 minimum wage; better treatment for blacks and Hispanics throughout the justice system; cheaper higher education and more spending on infrastructure; and taking women seriously who allege sexual assault. At this point in the American election cycle, you could hardly put together a better set of issues. Right now, Republicans have nothing. Democrats have everything. They shouldn’t be afraid to make sure everyone knows that.

  • Dodd-Frank Continues Scorched Earth Campaign Against Wall Street

    Those brutal Dodd-Frank bank regulations just keep tearing into Wall Street profits:

    JPMorgan Chase & Co. said Friday that third-quarter profit jumped 24% as the bank’s consumer business helped it overcome weaker trading. Shares rose about 1% in morning trading after the results were announced. The bank reported a profit of $8.38 billion, or $2.34 a share. Analysts polled by Refinitiv had expected earnings of $2.25 a share.

    David Lazarus reports that the financial industry’s whining in the midst of record profits is widespread:

    The American Bankers Assn. has been running TV commercials patting various lawmakers on the back for supporting “much-needed regulatory relief to help banks better serve their customers and communities.”

    ….What’s striking [] is how the banking industry has been busily spinning a myth about being crippled by overregulation, and how banks are yearning to breathe free of rules that prevent them from funding small businesses and investing in local communities. A report this week from Bankrate.com highlights the deceptive nature of the industry’s violin playing:

    • Banks are now charging a record $4.68 on average for each out-of-network ATM transaction, up 36% over the last decade.
    • The Los Angeles average fee is $4.44. The highest ATM fee nationwide is Detroit’s $5.28.
    • The average overdraft fee is $33.23, down a smidge from a year earlier, but 54% higher than two decades ago.
    • The Federal Reserve may be raising interest rates, but the average interest-bearing checking account pays out a mere 0.07% annually.
    • Only 8% of interest checking accounts require no monthly service fee or minimum balance. The most common such service fee is $25 a month.

    It’s so sad. Our plutocrat class is really suffering these days, and it’s all thanks to those socialist Democrats who passed an industry crippling bill in 2010 that has allowed Wall Street profits to grow by only 5-10 percent per year instead of, say, the 20-30 percent per year their profits grew during the housing bubble. Woe is them.

  • Inflation Is Trending Down Again, But….

    The inflation rate has gone down for the past two months and is now barely above 2 percent. Here’s a chart showing the Consumer Price Index for the past five years:

    Given this, should the Fed still be raising interest rates? It’s beginning to look like there’s no real acceleration in inflation at all. Let’s take a look at a longer-term chart that shows both inflation and interest rates:

    What you can see in this chart is something you already know: when inflation rises, the Fed responds with higher interest rates and this generally leads to a recession. The main exception to this trend comes in the mid-90s, when the Fed raised interest rates to 6 percent even though inflation was falling.

    This doesn’t mean that Fed actions are solely responsible for all recessions. Oil price spikes play a big role. The housing bubble obviously played a huge role in 2008. Still, as a general rule, when inflation rises more than about 2-3 points, the Fed usually responds and helps to tip the economy into recession. Right now, the Fed Funds rate has increased about 2 points over the past two years, which is a historically modest response. If they don’t go much further, I’d guess that their actions so far turn out to be pretty innocuous.¹ And with inflation still well in check, they really have no reason to keep going until they hit a 3 percentage point rise. I sure hope they agree.

    ¹Assuming some external event doesn’t do the job for them. A big oil price spike or a huge housing bubble could certainly cause a recession with little or no help from the Fed. Speaking of which:

    And this:

    Housing prices haven’t reached their 2016 peak, and oil prices haven’t spiked sharply over the past couple of years. Still, housing prices are up 40 percent since 2012, and oil prices are up 160 percent over the past two years. Those are pretty fair increases.

  • Kanye Meets Donald and the Press Goes Wild!

    Ron Sachs/CNP via ZUMA

    From Kanye West, the only man who can shut up Donald Trump:

    I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was connected with a neuropsychologist that works with the athletes in the NBA and the NFL. And he looked at my brain — it’s equal on three parts. I’m going to go ahead drop some bombs for you — 98 percentile IQ test. I had a 75 percentile of all human beings, but it was counting eight numbers backwards, (inaudible), so I’m going to work on that one. The other ones, 98 percent — Tesla, Freud.

    “I had a 75 percentile of all human beings.” In other words, a perfectly respectable IQ of 110. But Kanye somehow thinks if he can get better at counting eight random numbers backward—a common part of many IQ tests—he’ll boost his IQ to 130.

    Two things about this. First, this isn’t how IQ tests work. A weak performance on a single subtest of a single subsection just won’t have that big an effect on the overall score. Second, no matter how hard he tries, Kanye probably won’t be able to keep eight random numbers in working memory long enough to recite them backward. Why? Because he has an IQ of 110.

    But who cares? No one needs a high IQ to write beautiful poetry or powerful rap—which I’m told he does, though I’ve never listened to any of it. I’m afraid Schubert is more my thing. In any case, Yeezy then took some questions. The first one was about crime in Chicago. Kanye said he was opposed to stop-and-frisk, and then turned to jobs:

    We’re going to need to get a few breaks to be able to have some places in my hometown of Chicago, and 2.7 million to the 9 million surrounding suburbs where we can create some factories. Now, I think it would be cool for them to be Trump factories, because he’s a master of industry. He’s a builder. And I think it would be cool to have Yeezy ideation centers, which would be a mix of education that empowers people and gives them modern information like — sometimes people say, “This kid has ADD. This kid has ADD.” He don’t have ADD. School is boring. It was boring. It’s not as exciting as this. We have to make it more exciting. We have to mix curriculums.”

    Two things again. To the best of my knowledge, Trump has never build a factory. He has no clue how to run a factory. Second, Kanye has no idea what an “ideation center” is, and would quite possibly be the worst person to run one anyway. I mean, what could go wrong?

    There was also some stuff about the 13th Amendment being bad because 13 is bad luck; how Trump personally stopped a war with North Korea that would have cost millions of lives; the need to empower pharmaceuticals; the president should have a hydrogen-powered airplane; and how MAGA hats give him a lot of power and “male energy” that he lacks in the rest of his life.

    Finally, I guess we’re not supposed to make fun of Kanye because he has a mental illness. Is that right? But I dunno. I’ll grant that he often acts mentally ill, and he’s variously claimed to have periodic hallucinatory episodes; addiction to opioids; and bipolar disorder—though he told Trump that this was a misdiagnosis and he had just had sleep deprivation. In any case, he doesn’t seem to have any formally diagnosed mental illness that anyone knows about, so for now I’ll just treat him like I would any high-profile weird guy. I wish him the best of luck, and I’m happy that he seems to bring exhilaration to millions of fans. But he’s still a helluva strange and unhinged person, and I wish he were willing to seek out a little more professional help than he’s been willing to so far.

  • Can Moral Objections Allow a University Professor to Withhold a Student Recommendation?

    University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold.YouTube screen cap

    Juan Cole passes along an interesting story at the University of Michigan. A student asked professor John Cheney-Lippold to write her a letter of recommendation for summer study at Tel Aviv Universtity. The student was perfectly deserving of a recommendation, but Cheney-Lippold refused because of his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, a long-running attempt to pressure Israel to end its colonization of the West Bank. According to Cole, Cheney-Lippold had a sabbatical for next winter taken away, was denied a merit pay increase, and was threatened with being fired entirely if he declined to write another such letter.

    For the time being, I want to circle around the question of whether either the university or the professor acted properly. Rather, I’m intrigued by the parallel of this case to Catholic doctors refusing to dispense contraceptives; cake decorators refusing to make cakes for same-sex marriages; and county clerks refusing to issue marriage certificates to gay couples.

    The similarities are obvious. On one side, you have a person in authority who has strong religious and moral objections to a particular action. On the other side, you have ordinary people who are asking professionals to perform legal activities that they’re paid to do, even if they disapprove of what those ordinary people are doing.

    In the case of sex-based issues, conservatives almost unanimously side with the authority figures. Liberals almost unanimously side with the ordinary people.

    But now the tables are turned. Now that the issue is opposition to Israeli policies, will conservatives continue to side with the authority figure (i.e., the professor who refused to recommend a student to an Israeli university)? Will liberals continue to side with the ordinary person (who is asking her professor to violate his deeply-held moral beliefs)?

    Or will there be a 180-degree switch, justified with the usual sophistry? Or perhaps a semi-switch. Maybe conservatives will say very narrowly that because the University of Michigan is a government institution, Cheney-Lippold has a right of free speech and can’t be forced to write something he finds abhorrent. Maybe liberals will say the student should get her recommendation, but only because the professor didn’t make his personal rules clear in the class description. Otherwise things would be different.

    Or will both sides perform the usual pretzel-bending to deny that this case has even an speck of similarity with the others, and only an idiot centrist shill would fail to see it? Or maybe all of the above.

    POSTSCRIPT: Oh yeah, my views? Professionals should do what either the law or professional norms require them to do. With rare exceptions, that means sometimes doing things they find personally detestable. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of slippery slope arguments, but this is one area where they apply bigly. It gets very, very hard to draw a bright line when you start doling out exceptions.

    In other words, Cheney-Lippold should have written the recommendation. His student wasn’t asking for a letter to a fly-by-night college or a university that specializes in teaching terrorist techniques. It was a well-regarded university that happens to be in a country he doesn’t like. Big deal. If he really wanted to help his student and assuage his conscience at the same time, he should have added at the end: “Abigail Ingber is such a brilliant and conscientious student that I wrote this letter of recommendation even though I support the BDS boycott and believe that Israel’s actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are brutal and immoral.”