• It Pays to Be Technically Literate

    I see that Paul Manafort is now in even deeper trouble than before. Robert Mueller has filed new charges against him, this time involving tax fraud, and they show the depth and sophistication of the techniques Mueller uses to go after his targets:

    That’s more or less what tripped up John Lott too. They say that if most criminals weren’t idiots, we’d never catch any of them, and apparently that’s correct.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Our house in Caherdaniel was at the top of a hill near two cemeteries. The newer graveyard was, as you might expect, boring. I passed it twice a day as I drove out each morning and in at night, but I never bothered looking around. The old graveyard, however, was great. It was thickly overgrown, foggy at times, and full of ruined old church buildings. I was pretty careful when I walked around in it, but not careful enough: I tumbled completely into a hole covered by brambles and vines one time. I sustained no damage other than a few scratches, but for a while I wondered how I was going to get back up. I was suspended entirely by plants, and there was no obvious way to lift myself into a sitting position, let alone a standing one. But eventually I did, and after that I was even more careful.

    Anyway, here’s a Celtic cross at sunset over one of the graves.

  • Here’s Why People Are Working Less

    Via Andrew Van Dam, a new paper tries to estimate why there are fewer people working than in the 90s. Much of this is due to the aging of the workforce, but even among prime working-age people the employment rate is down. Here’s the employment-population ratio for those aged 25-54 since the mid-90s:

    The peak of the dotcom boom is probably not the right comparison, but even if you use the mid-90s more generally as a baseline, about 2-3 percent of the working-age population has dropped out of the workforce over the past two decades. Why? Here’s what the authors came up with:

    For practical purposes, the entire story is China and automation. The other three factors had a minimal effect, and the following things had no effect:

    • SNAP (food stamp) expansions
    • Obamacare/Medicaid
    • More generous EITC
    • Increased rates of spousal employment
    • Increased difficulties due to lack of family leave
    • Expanded immigration
    • Decline in unionization

    The China effect is a one-off phenomenon, and it’s pretty much over. We’ve lost all the jobs we’re going to lose. Automation, however, is just getting started. I don’t personally expect it to have a big impact in the near future, but starting in the mid 2020s I think it will. This is the biggest economic challenge of the next few decades.

  • The Stock Market Depends on Consumer Spending, Not Just Tech

    Yesterday the Wall Street Journal said the stock market would be sucking if not for the tech sector:

    Three technology titans have powered nearly half of the S&P 500’s advance this year, a worrying sign for investors expecting a strengthening economy to lift shares of manufacturers, oil companies and other firms whose fortunes typically improve with growth.

    The S&P 500 technology sector has driven more than three quarters of the index’s gains, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. The next biggest contributor is the consumer-discretionary sector—which includes tech-focused Amazon and Netflix—with more than a third of the advance.

    If you look at a few weeks of performance, you’ll always find something to worry about. Here’s what a few S&P sectors look like for the past six months:

    Tech is doing great, but so are financials and the consumer discretionary sector—which does include Amazon, but is overwhelmingly standard consumer stuff like Disney and Comcast and McDonalds. And consumer durables have been kicking ass for the entire past year.

    I don’t know how long this will keep up, but the market isn’t about to crater as soon as tech stocks come back down to earth. It’s going to crater if the Fed doesn’t allow middle-class earnings to rise and consumers stop spending. This is one sense in which the stock market really is a proxy for the entire economy.

  • Stop It: We Are Not Going to Arm Teachers

    Students training for a license to carry a concealed weapon in Chino, California.Jebb Harris via ZUMA

    The ability of Donald Trump to drive the news media is spectacular. Every newspaper is leading with Trump’s call to arm teachers, and in the Washington Post Philip Bump even goes so far as to figure out how much that would cost (about $1 billion). I don’t blame Bump for doing this—it’s the kind of thing I’d do, after all—but it’s insane nevertheless. We’re not going to hand out Glocks to third-grade teachers. Most teachers don’t want to be armed. And having lots of guns around schools is pretty much begging for trouble anyway.

    Mostly, though, it’s insane. We’re not going to arm teachers. Trump knows it. The NRA knows it. It’s just a random tarball tossed out to distract attention from the obvious problem. And it works.

  • Staff to Trump: Say “I Hear You” Occasionally

    Behold the president of the United States, at an Oval Office meeting with students and parents from Parkland, Florida. His staff had to remind him that every once in a while he should pretend to be paying attention to the grieving families he was meeting with.

    Associated Press
  • Don’t Worry, Social Media Will Get Better

    Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS

    This is from Chris Hayes last night:

    It’s funny. Generally speaking, I’m not a cheerful, optimistic guy. And yet, I feel much more sanguine about social media than most of the folks I read on—well, on social media.

    There are several reasons for this. For one thing, I’m not convinced that social media has changed people or that it “says something” about contemporary society. I think there have always been lots of assholes out there, and all social media does is congregate them in a single place. Second, the media wildly overcovers Twitter and Facebook because reporters (and famous people in general) tend to be on Twitter and Facebook themselves. Reddit is far more of a cesspool than Twitter will ever be, but you only rarely hear of it. Why? Because most reporters never read it. Third, as I’ve mentioned before, we humans are bad at arithmetic. The emotional impact of a thousand trolls haranguing you is way out of proportion to how much you should care about 0.0001 percent of the population hating on you.

    I figure we’ll all adapt to this stuff eventually. The media will get bored with social media and the rest of us will figure out that tidal waves of assholes aren’t really all that meaningful.

    But there’s one other thing that keeps me hopeful. I think of social media in its current incarnation as similar to war: a war between trolls and the rest of us. The trolls are on offense, and right now they have the upper hand. But military technology usually follows cycles like this. Offensive capabilities improve, and defenses only catch up later. Likewise, we’re only now starting to get serious about defending ourselves against trolls. But we’ll figure it out, and social media will be safe again. Then we’ll go through the same cycle again with something else.

    I think we’re at the nadir of social media right now. A decade ago it was new enough that usage was low and trolls weren’t a big problem. A decade in the future we’ll figure out how to bottle up the trolls. Right now, though, we’re kind of screwed. But it won’t last.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    A dandelion growing by the Sneem River in County Kerry.

  • Sorry, But Here’s Yet Another Nutball Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

    Just in case you don’t know, the latest right-wing nutball conspiracy theory is that David Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is not what he seems:

    In certain right-wing corners of the web — and, increasingly, from more mainstream voices like Rush Limbaugh and a commentator on CNN — the students are being portrayed not as grief-ridden survivors but as pawns and conspiracists intent on exploiting a tragedy to undermine the nation’s laws. In these baseless accounts, which by Tuesday had spread rapidly on social media, the students are described as “crisis actors,” who travel to the sites of shootings to instigate fury against guns. Or they are called F.B.I. plants, defending the bureau for its failure to catch the shooter. They have been portrayed as puppets being coached and manipulated by the Democratic Party, gun control activists, the so-called antifa movement and the left-wing billionaire George Soros.

    The theories are far-fetched.

    Indeed they are, but let’s be honest: not as far-fetched as the idea that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor.

    I know, I know: Just yesterday I announced a new right-wing nutball conspiracy theory, and today I have a brand new one. What can I say? Back in the good old days when Bill Clinton was accused of running drugs out of Mena airport and murdering Vince Foster, the conspiracy theories were weeks or even months apart. Today that seems quaint. Like any addict, modern right-wing nutballs demand higher highs and more frequent highs. Also like any other addict, they become ever more willing to sink to any depths to feed their habit. At least Bill Clinton was president of the United States, after all. Presidents are used to being attacked. Now they’re going after 17-year-olds who have just watched a gunman massacre their friends. I’m almost afraid to ask what’s next.

  • An Old Man Reflects on the Era of Fire Drills, Not Lockdown Drills

    As an old man tottering into the sunset of his life, I would like to verify from my own experience that, yes, there was a time when kids went to high school without giving a moment’s thought to being gunned down by a mass murderer. Hard to believe, I know.

    As we all know, kids today are better behaved, on average, than kids in the 70s and 80s. So that’s obviously not the reason. But what else could it be? It’s a mystery.