• No, Trump Hasn’t Been Harder on Russia Than Obama

    Jonah Goldberg says Donald Trump is right to say he’s been tougher on Russia than President Obama:

    Barack Obama sold out our Eastern European allies on missile defense. He slow-walked aid to Ukraine and did little more than shrug when Crimea was annexed. He said “never mind” on his own “red line” in Syria and turned a blind eye to Putin’s intervention there, in large part because of his obsessions with getting the Iran deal. The Russian meddling in our elections started on Obama’s watch — and not just our elections but those of many of our allies. When Mitt Romney famously said Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe, Obama mocked him for it as did countless liberal journalists who are now converts to anti-Russia hawkery.

    Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made life harder for Russia diplomatically and economically thanks to revving up our oil and gas production. It hasn’t been as tough as some — including me — would like, but it’s been tougher than the Obama administration. Or at least it’s not unreasonable.

    Well now. Obama did cancel George Bush’s missile defense plan, but he did it on the advice of the same guy who created the plan in the first place: Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was designed as a shield against Iranian missiles, and it wouldn’t have worked very well. In 2016 Obama approved a new missile defense plan based in Romania—also part of Eastern Europe and also blasted by the Russians as “an attempt to destroy the strategic balance.”

    When Russia annexed Crimea, Obama put in place deep and painful sanctions against Russia. This was no easy task, since our European allies were reluctant to go along. As for who’s our No. 1 geopolitical foe, I think Obama was right not to choose Russia, though I suppose your mileage might vary on that. Ditto for Syria. I think Obama did the right thing to stay out, but those more hawkish than me probably disagree.

    Now let’s move on to Trump. He has, according to Goldberg himself

    …literally done nothing except to “rev up” our oil and gas production. Really?

    Production of oil and gas rose a bit in September, but it rose for the same reason as always: because fracking operations increased output in response to a rise in prices (partly due to Hurricane Harvey). Fracking operations always respond to price spikes. It had nothing to do with Trump and nothing to do with Russia, which has been producing crude at the same rate all year:

    Russia benefited from the increase in crude oil prices just like everyone else. In terms of oil revenue, at least, their life has gotten easier over the past year, not harder.¹

    This is American conservatism in a nutshell. Goldberg despises Trump, but he despises Obama even more. The end result is pretzel-bending arguments about things like this that ignore every scrap of evidence about Trump and Russia. It’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin hasn’t gotten the breather he hoped for when Trump beat Hillary Clinton, but that’s only because Congress and public opinion have forced Trump to back off. And in any case, surely the fact that Putin was so hellbent on defeating Hillary in the first place is evidence enough of how difficult the Obama administration made his life?

    ¹Although this has nothing to do with Trump either.

  • New Right-Wing Nutball Theory: Michael Flynn About to Go Free!

    Ting Shen/ZUMA

    Here’s the latest conspiracy theory among the nutball right: a judge recently ordered special prosecutor Robert Mueller to produce “any exculpatory evidence” in the Michael Flynn case. J’accuse! Obviously Mueller held something back and the judge is pissed. Perhaps Flynn plans to rescind his guilty plea?

    Short answer: nope. Judge Emmet Sullivan, it turns out, issues a standing order to produce exculpatory evidence for every case brought before him. When he took over the Flynn case, he accidentally issued an old version of the order:

    Sullivan did his best, but it wasn’t enough. The Trumperati are convinced that something is going on that will blow the whole Russiagate affair out of the water and expose it for the liberal scheming it really is. And when that doesn’t happen? As with Benghazi and the “stand down” order, they’ll just move on to something else. If they clap their hands loud enough, they’re just sure that eventually they’ll find a smoking gun.

  • Humans Are Responsible for Nearly All Modern Global Warming

    No special reason for this post, but in case anyone ever suggests to you that, sure, global warming is real, but we don’t know how much is caused by humans—well, yes we do:

    This is from the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which states with high confidence that “the likely contributions of natural forcing and internal variability to global temperature change over that period [1951-2010] are minor.” If you want to see all the human causes broken down further, here you go:

    We humans have done things that both increase and decrease the amount of solar heat being trapped on the earth. However, they don’t balance out: the increases are far greater than the decreases. The result is global warming.

  • Low-Fat vs. Low-Carb: A New Study Puts Them to the Test

    The Nutrition Science Initiative was co-founded by Gary Taubes, one of the leading advocates of a low-carb/low-sugar diet. He argues that sugar is the real enemy in the American diet, not fat. I’ve been intrigued by this for a long time, and recently NSI teamed up with Stanford University and the National Institutes of Health to test low-fat vs. low-carb diets. This was a pretty high-quality random trial, and via Examine.com here’s what the weight loss looked like for every participant in each group:

    Those are…remarkably similar. Apparently you can choose to lose weight any way you want, and it works fine as long as you consume fewer calories.

    Now, there are caveats, of course. For starters, virtually no one fully adhered to either diet. And although weight loss was about the same for both groups, the low-fat group ended up with lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, while the low-carb group ended up with lower triglycerides and higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels. However:

    Within each group, differences in genotypes or insulin secretion made no significant difference in weight change…Both groups were able to improve certain health markers (BMI, body fat percentage, waist circumference, blood pressure, and fasting insulin and glucose levels), although no significant differences were seen between groups….Resting energy expenditure (REE) was not significantly different between groups at any point….Total energy expenditure (TEE) was not significantly different between groups or compared to baseline. Lastly, although a little over 10% of each group improved their metabolic syndrome during the trial, there was no significant difference between diets.

    Insulin secretion is the causal mechanism that underlies the low-carb diet, but this study suggests that there were no clinical differences in insulin changes between the low-fat and low-carb groups.

    This is just one study, and it’s hardly the final word. Somehow, though, every time we study this stuff, it seems as though it makes less and less difference what we eat. As near as I can tell, the bottom line is that if you want to lose weight, eat less. If you want to get healthier, exercise more. Beyond that, it’s hard to say with confidence that anything makes a very big difference.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is an egret in the San Diego Creek, which runs a few hundred yards from my house. I don’t know why it’s called that, since it’s nowhere near San Diego, but perhaps the early Mexican settlers around here were fans of Juan Diego. It’s not as if the folks down south with the famous zoo have a trademark on the name, after all. In any case, it’s not really a creek these days, it’s a storm channel that drains about a hundred square miles around these parts. At least, that’s what it does when we have any rain, which we don’t right now. At the moment, the whole creek bed is sort of marshy, perfect for egrets and ducks and sandpipers.

  • Judicial Watch: Never Give Up, Never Surrender

    Look what popped up in my inbox this morning from Judicial Watch:

    Rumors have been floating up from Little Rock for months now of a new investigation into the Clinton Foundation….

    Do tell. Please go on:

    John Solomon advanced the story recently….The Wall Street Journal is tracking the story….Investigative journalist Peter Schweizer¹ cryptically told SiriusXM radio that federal authorities should “convene a grand jury” in Little Rock.

    ….Smelling a rat in Arkansas when it comes to the Clintons of course is nothing new, and the former First Couple are masters of the gray areas around pay-to-play….The tenacious financial expert Charles Ortel, who has been digging deep into Clinton finances for years, told us back in 2015 that there are “epic problems” with the entire Clinton Foundation edifice, which traces its origins back to Arkansas….Law enforcement may be finally catching up with Ortel’s insights.

    Has there ever been an outfit as bullheaded and longlasting as Judicial Watch? Last week it was Sid Blumenthal. The week before it was JW’s endless lawsuit to expose “draft indictments” of Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater case. This week it’s the Clinton Foundation. Arkansas politics is a sewer, and Judicial Watch has mucked around down there for decades, determined to dredge every bit of Little Rock tittle-tattle into the national limelight. The national press has followed them since the start, for reasons only Bob Somerby can fathom. And they’re still at it! Both Clintons are now out of politics. One was impeached and the other was defeated in the most humiliating way possible. But that’s not enough. Has any group ever been as fanatical in its hatred as Judicial Watch is of the Clintons?

    ¹Former YAF up-and-comer, Steve Bannon crony, Breitbart contributor, and, in case you’ve forgotten, author of Clinton Cash, which the New York Times credulously excerpted and followed up on during the 2016 campaign.

  • The Robots Are Coming! But Not For a While.

    Things are slow this morning, so I’m going to rail against one of my pet peeves: analogies to the Industrial Revolution as evidence that robots won’t reduce employment. My victim today is Heather Long at Wonkblog:

    History suggests new jobs will replace old ones. As the Industrial Revolution demonstrated, technological transformations create new jobs no one has thought of yet. The same trend appears to be happening today.

    Companies shed workers during the Great Recession and rapidly tried to cut costs, including by introducing more machines on assembly lines and in fast casual restaurants like Panera, where you can now order on a touch screen. Yet even with those trends, the U.S. economy has added more than 16.4 million jobs since the low point for employment in December 2009.

    “Tom Cotton is woefully misinformed,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. “Robots will create more jobs.” Brusuelas points out that many of the fastest-growing jobs today, such as “user design” and “cloud engineers,” weren’t around a decade ago. We like to talk about how robots kill jobs, but we tend to talk a lot less about how many other jobs are being created in the economy.

    Ah yes: user design and cloud engineers. All those displaced truck drivers will just transition into Silicon Valley engineering jobs. Sure they will.

    We have had one (1) “technological transformation” in recent human history. It did, eventually, create new jobs for the class of workers¹ who had been displaced. However, this sample size of one provides no evidence that all technological transformations will work the same way.

    In fact, it’s vanishingly unlikely that the AI Revolution will work the same way as the Industrial Revolution. The latter displaced human muscle power, but all those machines still had to be run by humans with brains. That’s where the new jobs came from. The AI Revolution will displace human brainpower, and that means there will be nothing left for most humans to do. If a robot is both mentally and physically equal (or superior) to a human being, then by definition they can do whatever a human can do. We don’t have to argue one by one about every job category, or even think about every possible new job that might be created in their place. The answer to all of them is: robots will do that too.

    Now, if you don’t think AI will ever get to human level, that’s fine. Then the AI Revolution will never happen. I’d still argue that enough of it will happen to cause considerable upheaval, but now we’re in a technological argument. What happens, for example, if AI and robotics get smart enough to perform all unskilled and semiskilled labor, but never advance further than that? We won’t have 100 percent unemployment, but we’ll have 30-40 percent unemployment, and that strikes me as still a big enough problem to worry about.

    However, if you accept that AI will eventually get to human level, then yes, robots will take all our jobs. And they’ll take all the new jobs too.

    As for Cotton, though, he’s also wrong. There’s no conflict between the American economy needing more workers in the short term but being in danger of having too many workers in the longer term. Today we’re short of workers. In 20 years we’ll be wondering what to do with all the workers we have. There’s no reason to think those two things are in tension.

    ¹I say “class of workers” because many of the actual workers displaced by the Industrial Revolution were indeed put out of jobs. It was only later that other jobs cropped up to replace them. Workers of similar skill levels then took those jobs, but that was no help to the original folks who had lost their livelihoods.

  • Are “Deaths of Despair” Related to Lead Poisoning?

    Here’s something I want to toss out, even though I don’t have an answer to offer—or even a clue, really. It’s about lead.

    People periodically ask me about whether lead might be responsible for some phenomenon or other. I’m generally very careful about this stuff. It’s possible that lead poisoning is responsible for lots of things, but in most cases the effect is likely to be (a) fairly small and (b) swamped by other factors anyway. That makes it all but impossible to measure, and if you can’t measure it you can’t really say anything about it.

    The things that are easiest to measure are behaviors at the far end of the bell curve. Here’s why: if lead affects some behavior by a little bit, it will push the mean of the bell curve over by a point or two. Most of the time, this is just too small to measure. But the tail of the bell curve might be doubled or tripled in size. This is the case with violent crime, for example, which is why it’s feasible to correlate lead and crime.

    What other behaviors are fairly rare, and therefore might increase by a large amount due to lead poisoning? For some reason, it recently occurred to me to be intrigued by the Case-Deaton study of “deaths of despair.” There are some technical problems with their original paper, but I think everyone agrees that even when those are corrected there’s still something going on. And that something is primarily affecting people who are about 50 years old.

    The peak years for lead poisoning in the US were 1965-1975. People born in those years are now ages 43-53. Is there some kind of connection?

    The fact that this doesn’t seem to be happening in other countries—which is pretty much the whole point of the Case-Deaton paper—suggests that lead may not be the culprit. There’s also the fact that it seems to affect whites more than blacks, which is the opposite of what you’d expect if lead was involved. At the same time, it’s possible that lead has an effect that only shows up if other conditions help it along. Who knows?

    In any case, it seems like this might be worth a look. I’m not entirely sure how to look at it, though. Take tooth samples of folks who drink themselves to death to check for lead concentrations? That’s not especially likely. But maybe there are less intrusive ways of establishing whether there’s a correlation in the first place. If there is, it would be worth further study.

  • “Don’t Feed the Trolls” Is Even Better Advice Than it Used to Be

    You should think long and hard before sharing this tweet with the world. Unfortunately, the people who most need this advice are the least likely to heed it.

    Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf calls out lefty call-out culture. It’s become so excessive, he says, that Twitter mobs routinely go ballistic over the smallest, most inadvertent micro-slights, even those from folks who are basically on their side:

    I don’t understand why they believe that extreme anger and stigma should be directed at people whose intentions and substantive beliefs are so close to their own….

    I don’t understand why they dedicate so much energy and focus to what even they call microaggressions at a time when an ascendant coalition in American politics is bent on deporting as many immigrants as possible….

    I don’t understand how they think they can defeat that nativist faction if their own pro-immigrant coalition engages in divisive infighting over transgressions as inevitable as clumsy wording….

    Even if every object of dragging deserved it, I don’t understand how the outcome could be anything other than punishing an infinitesimal percentage of bad actors while turning off so many with the excesses that it provokes a backlash.

    Over at Vox, I think Ezra Klein coincidentally provides most of the answer in an interview with Tristan Harris:

    Ezra Klein: I had Jaron Lanier on this podcast a couple months ago, and he said something I’ve been thinking about since then. He said that the key to a lot of social media is [that] negative emotions engage more powerfully than positive emotions. Do you think he’s right about that?

    Tristan Harris: Oh, absolutely. Outrage just spreads faster than something that’s not outrage. When you open up the blue Facebook icon, you’re activating the AI, which tries to figure out the perfect thing it can show you that’ll engage you. It doesn’t have any intelligence, except figuring out what gets the most clicks. The outrage stuff gets the most clicks, so it puts that at the top….If the first thing you do when your eyes open is see Twitter and there’s a bunch of stuff to be outraged about, that’s going to do something to you on an animal level.

    Journalists as a group evaluate social media poorly, and we evaluate Twitter especially poorly. Think about how Twitter works. There are a very few influencers who are determined to root out and denounce anything that’s even remotely problematic. They do this mostly via absurdly hostile readings of other tweets or by making connections that most people would never notice. Nonetheless, once that bell is rung, it can’t be unrung—and their followers all rush in to denounce the micro-slight in question. Why do the influencers do this? Because they’re zealots, and that’s what zealots do. And why do they attract mobs who follow them so uncritically? Because those are the kinds of mobs zealots always attract.

    It’s exhausting to be on the receiving end of this stuff, but it’s truly meaningless. There will always be zealots and their mobs looking for outrages to slay. And while Twitter makes them more visible, their numbers are still tiny. A few hundred? A few thousand? That’s nothing considering the minuscule effort it takes to dash off a bit of tweetrage. Unless a Twitter mob gets into the 10-100,000 range, it simply doesn’t represent anything important.

    Even among the far reaches of the left, I imagine that most people agree with Friedersdorf that outrage is a stupid response to micro-slights. So the answer to his bewilderment, I think, is twofold. First, social media is a magnet for outrage, and the platforms themselves encourage this because it keeps people engaged and delivers more eyeballs to their advertisers. Second, even given this, the number of people outraged by micro-slights is truly insignificant. Social media tidal waves, in which a few thousand responses rain down within a couple of hours, merely make them seem big.

    If you ignore small Twitter mobs—and by small, I mean at least anything under 10,000 tweets—most of the paradoxes and conundrums of the social justice zealots go away almost instantly.

  • Republicans Are Trying Out a Shiny New Excuse For the Great Kansas Failure

    Last week a reader emailed me about a new meme he had just come across:

    Heard a random Republican talking head on NPR recently, and when the interviewer questioned him on the “Kansas experiment,” his automatic response was a) Kansas “massively” increased spending when they cut taxes, so that’s why they have problems; and b) North Carolina has done the same thing without the increased spending and it’s working great.

    Of course this smells like bullshit to me, but I don’t actually know. Are either of these assertions correct?

    I’m too lazy to waste time on North Carolina right now, but spending in Kansas is easy enough to check. Here it is:

    Since 2011, when Sam Brownback took office promising a “red state experiment,” general fund spending has been flat while spending from all sources has declined by 1.7 percent. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t count as “massively” increasing spending.

    Bottom line: Brownback slashed taxes, kept spending flat, wrecked Kansas schools, and turned in lousy economic performance compared to his neighboring states:

    By just about any measure, the red-state experiment failed, and Republicans can hardly run away from Kansas fast enough. I guess their latest wheeze is to pretend that Brownback was a faker all along and it was really North Carolina we should have kept an eye on. Uh huh.