• Yet More Trade Antics From the President

    So many soybeans.Imago via ZUMA

    Let’s catch up on trade news. First, there’s this:

    Speaking at a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Lighthizer said that the European Union, along with Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Korea, would be exempted. Canada and Mexico were earlier left off the list of countries subject to the tariffs.

    That’s three-quarters of all the tariffs that were originally announced, and I imagine Japan and Taiwan will get themselves on this list shortly too. Among big exporters of steel, that will leave only Russia and Turkey. So what was the point of all this?

    Next up, Trump is getting ready to slap tariffs on either $50 or $60 billion worth of Chinese imports. No one knows which. But the tariffs will cover thousands of different products. Earlier, China had sounded pretty low-key about this, but not anymore:

    It is readying retaliatory tariffs against U.S. exports of soybeans, sorghum and live hogs, targeting products from Farm Belt states that supported President Donald Trump, according to people with knowledge of the policies. But Beijing’s response would be calibrated to minimize escalation, the people said.

    China imports about $12 billion worth of soybeans from the US. The other stuff is minor. In any case, I suppose we’re now in for another round of farmers who voted for Trump wailing that they didn’t know he was actually going to do any of the stuff he spent a year saying he’d do. They just figured he was lying in order to sound like a tough guy—which, admittedly, might not have been a bad guess. But it didn’t pan out.

    Unlike a lot of people, I’m not especially worried about a trade war. I just think this whole thing is pointless. Why we are wasting our time on this stuff?

  • Here’s a Textbook Criticism of Econometrics Gone Bad

    A couple of weeks ago I linked to a study that suggested the anti-overdose drug Nalexone might, on net, actually cause more opioid deaths. I was skeptical because the data seemed to show no real pattern. The authors drew a dashed red line at the point where Nalexone was legalized, and sure enough, it looked like opioid deaths jumped after the new laws were passed. But the line seemed entirely arbitrary.

    Now Andrew Gelman has weighed in. He has pretty much the same criticisms I did, but he also has the statistical chops to be taken seriously. However, he also links to Richard Border, who doesn’t say a word but lets the numbers speak for themselves:

    This is a textbook criticism of statistics based on too few data points. As Border shows, you can put the cutoff line anywhere and it looks like there’s a big jump in opioid deaths. But that doesn’t mean anything. The error bars are enormous, and the before-and-after “trends” are meaningless.

    I’d add that this also shows the value of simply using common sense. If you remove all the lines and the error bars and simply look at the scatterplot, there’s nothing there. That should make you skeptical from the very start. It’s true that occasionally you can tease real results out of data like this, but you’d better be damn sure of what you’re doing and you’d better check it ten different ways. The authors of this study didn’t do that.

  • Donald Trump’s Popularity Among Republicans Is Very Average

    Yesterday Greg Sargent highlighted a comment from Sen. Bob Corker about why Republicans are hesitant to get tough with President Trump over the possibility of him firing Bob Mueller. It’s all about the midterms:

    Amid sky-high Democratic enthusiasm and a developing “blue wave,” Republicans can’t afford a war with Trump that depresses GOP turnout….“The president is, as you know — you’ve seen his numbers among the Republican base — it’s very strong. It’s more than strong, it’s tribal in nature,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who decided to retire when his second term concludes at year’s end, after periodically sparring with Trump.

    “People who tell me, who are out on trail, say, look, people don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know if you’re with Trump or not,” Corker added.

    Generally speaking, Corker is right that it makes sense not to go to war with your own president in an election year. Still, the fact is that Trump is only normally popular right now:

    Trump’s numbers have risen over the past couple of months, but he’s still very much middle-of-the-pack compared to other Republican presidents at this point in their terms. He’s also only about three points higher than Obama was among Democrats.

    So sure: Trump is popular among Republicans. But he’s hardly sky high or anything. Right now he places third out of the past four Republicans.

  • The Real Enemy of the White Working Class Is … the White Middle Class

    Tucker Carlson is getting some flak over this:

    On his top-rated Fox News show Tuesday night, conservative pundit Tucker Carlson opined on demographic change and immigration in America….The segment was focused on a National Geographic article featured in the magazine’s April issue. Though the article, centered on the Pennsylvania town of Hazleton, was titled “As America Changes, Some Anxious Whites Feel Left Behind,” Carlson focused his remarks on the growth of Hazleton’s Hispanic population, which has increased exponentially since 2000 — a change that Carlson said “makes societies volatile.”

    ….But he saved his strongest words for “our leaders … who caused all this,” who, in his words, live in neighborhoods that “are basically unchanged — they look like it’s 1960. No demographic change in their zip code.” He concludes, “Our leaders are for diversity, just not where they live.”

    I’m not here to defend the thrust of Carlson’s weeklong jihad against immigrants, which has been generally repellent. I want to comment only on this specific point, because it explains something that a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to.

    I first learned this years ago when I read Kevin Kruse’s White Flight, a portrait of Atlanta in the 60s. From the viewpoint of working-class whites, here’s what he says happened:

    1. Up through the 50s, Atlanta is nicely segregated. Working class whites live in all-white neighborhoods and everyone is happy.
    2. Then the Civil Rights era surges into Atlanta, and its leaders realize that segregation has to go.
    3. Middle and upper-middle-class whites support desegregation, but only because they have enough money to flee Atlanta for the suburbs, where they live in white communities and send their kids to private white schools. Needless to say, working-class whites are stuck in Atlanta as their neighborhoods become steadily blacker.
    4. Because of this, working-class whites feel a deep sense of betrayal. They are angry not just—or even mostly—at blacks, but at affluent whites. These folks have supported segregation for decades, and by voting with their feet they make it plain that they still support it. But they’re willing to throw their fellow working-class whites under the bus for the sake of buying peace for the business community.

    This is the root cause of working-class white resentment toward—well, blacks, of course. But if you dig down, their real resentment is toward the political establishment that, in their view, cynically sold them out. This is what Carlson is getting at. He knows his audience.

    This is a big part of why working-class whites are always on the lookout for politicians who rail against the establishment. Or the swamp. Or the elites. Or the deep state. Sure, they prefer Republicans, who are opposed to affirmative action and callout culture and political correctness. But when push comes to shove, what they really want is someone who will take a wrecking ball to the establishment that screwed them. That’s why some of them thought well of Bernie Sanders: they might not have liked his tolerant racial politics, but that was secondary to the fact that he wanted to bust up elite control of the country. That’s what they want too.

    Donald Trump, of course, appealed to them even more: he also wanted to bust up the elites and he had the right racial politics. So they put him in the White House. It’s the ultimate act of revenge from the folks who weren’t rich enough to flee to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s—an act of revenge that’s now carried on by their children. Hispanics may be the scapegoats this time around, but as before, their real animosity is saved for the folks who have sold them out: the white establishment that’s rich enough not to care about about illegal immigration because they’re rich enough to avoid it.

  • Tempe Police Release Video of Uber Pedestrian Collision

    The Tempe Police Department has released video from the Uber car that hit a pedestrian on Sunday. Here’s the front-facing video at the 3.2 second mark:

    By eyesight alone, there’s nothing there. And here it is one second later:

    There are a few things we can tentatively say:

    • The pedestrian was crossing in shadow and was virtually invisible a second before the crash. It’s unlikely any human driver could have avoided this collision.
    • But the Uber car also has lidar and radar. Why didn’t those pick up the pedestrian?
    • Also: one second might be too short a time for a human to react more than minimally, but it’s plenty of time for a computer. Maybe the Uber car couldn’t have avoided the collision completely, but it doesn’t seem to have reacted at all. Why?

    Here’s the full video:

  • Taxes, Welfare, and Income Inequality: Here’s the CBO’s Latest Report

    The CBO has released its annual report on the distribution of household income, and they’ve changed things up this year. They’re now measuring income in two ways:

    • Before taxes and transfers. This is basically market income.
    • After taxes and transfers. This is market income plus means-tested welfare benefits minus taxes paid.

    This is handy because it allows us to zero in on the way that social welfare benefits change income distribution. There’s nothing surprising in this year’s report (which goes up through 2014), but it’s a good excuse to review some of the basics. Here are a few charts from the report.

    The personal income tax is basically the only progressive federal tax we have. Everything else put together is a flat tax:

    Two-thirds of welfare benefits come from Medicaid. Everything else—food stamps, WIC, Section 8 housing, etc.—amounts to only about a third of all benefits for the poor.

    Welfare benefits make a difference. As the chart above shows, means-tested welfare benefits increase the income of the poorest by over 60 percent. Since 1980, market income for the poor has grown about a third as fast as market income for the well-to-do, but when you account for welfare benefits it’s grown nearly half as fast—and it’s grown faster than middle-class incomes.

    The rich continue to outpace everyone. Even after you account for welfare benefits, the incomes of the top fifth have grown faster than anyone else. And the incomes of the top 1 percent have grown way faster.

    It’s worth remembering that CBO figures are pretty solid. They count cash income, benefits (mainly health insurance), Social Security, welfare benefits, and taxes. It’s a very broad overview of total income.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    If I can read a map correctly—a sadly hit-or-miss affair for me, I’m afraid—this is Ahwiyah Point, a smallish rock right in front of Half Dome. This picture was, obviously, taken just before sunset, when the light is bright and golden. The reflection is from the dregs of Mirror Lake. There’s not much of Mirror Lake to see in the winter, but there’s just enough to produce a nice image.

    February 14, 2018 — Ahwiyah Point, Yosemite National Park
  • Facebook Will Never Change Unless We Force It To

    Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

    I have some thoughts on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica affair. Actually, it’s just one thought, I suppose. And hardly a new one.

    Anyway. Mark Zuckerberg has learned not to admit this publicly anymore, but back in the day he was pretty open about the fact that he personally believed the world would be a better place if we all got over our privacy bugaboos. Facebook was his way of helping that along: every default in the software was set for maximum exposure, and he figured that everyone would soon get used to this and we’d all be comfortable with everyone knowing everything about ourselves.

    In pursuit of this vision, Zuckerberg has relentlessly followed the same strategy for years: reduce privacy within Facebook in every way possible until somebody gets mad. Then he apologizes, says he “didn’t realize” how sensitive Facebook’s customers were about this, and eliminates the one specific thing people are complaining about—but nothing else. Needless to say, this kind of massive data collection is great for Facebook’s business model. However, I think it’s more important to remember that Zuckerberg really does seem to have a sincere personal belief that he’s creating a better world by making everything about everyone as public as possible.

    So what we have is a controlling CEO with a monomaniacal personal vision that lines up perfectly with his company’s business vision. This is not all that common. Usually CEOs have diffuse power to begin with, and their personal beliefs are often in conflict with what’s good for the business. Facebook isn’t like that. Zuckerberg has absolute control, and his vision matches perfectly with what’s best for shareholders.

    In other words, what happened with Cambridge Analytica wasn’t just some glitch. It’s Facebook’s business model. What I mean by this is not that Facebook wanted Aleksandr Kogan to turn over massive amounts of personal data to CA. They might genuinely be annoyed by that.¹ What I mean is that the general idea of collecting and disseminating massive amounts of personal data is what Facebook is all about. It’s what Mark Zuckerberg is all about, and given his vision of the world it’s inevitable that things like the CA affair will happen periodically. He really doesn’t care much about it except as a PR problem—which is why he’s spent the past two years trying to get better at PR.

    In a sense, though, I don’t blame either Facebook or Zuckerberg for any of this. As a country, we’ve made it crystal clear that we don’t care about personal privacy. We mock European privacy directives. We ignore the dozens of companies that do exactly the same thing as Facebook but have lower profiles. We allow credit reporting companies to collect anything they want with no oversight at all when they screw up and wreck someone’s life. On a personal level, we’re routinely willing to turn over every detail of our lives in return for a $1 iTunes coupon.

    If we don’t like the idea of Facebook making our personal lives an open book to anyone, we can do something about it. The way to do that is to elect “politicians” who will write “laws” that regulate it. But Republicans don’t like regulations in general, and Democrats are queasy about regulating Silicon Valley since they get lots of money from there. As it happens, this is not one of my personal hot buttons,² but I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats could make some real inroads among older voters if they took a strong stand on this.

    ¹For one thing, CA didn’t pay Facebook for it. That’s really annoying.

    ²Except for supermarket loyalty cards, of course. You all know how I feel about those.

  • Let’s Please Calm Down For a Few Days Over the Uber Car Crash

    Laura Dale/PA Wire via ZUMA

    Driverless cars are equipped with video, lidar, radar, sonar, and probably every other “ar” that exists. I assume this means that we will soon have massive amounts of evidence about what happened with the Uber car that killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Because of this, I’m willing to wait a few days before getting too hysterical about the whole thing, and I’d recommend everyone else do the same thing. But that means Uber better release some of this stuff pretty quickly. They’re going to have to do it in court anyway, so why not now?

    And while we’re on the subject, an awful lot of people seem to think that we’re now in terra incognita over the question of who’s at fault. What if it’s just an algorithm on a chip? Sue the chip? ZOMG!

    So I would like to personally assure everyone that this kind of thing has been adjudicated ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. A driverless car is just a machine. It is owned by someone and insured by someone. If subcontractors are responsible for software development, they have contracts in place that apportion responsibility. If the contracts aren’t clear, a court will decide who’s at fault. Ditto for the safety driver. There is nothing new or unusual about any of this, so can everyone please stand down on the allegedly unprecedented legal mess we’re all about to embark on?

  • White High School Grads Fled the Democratic Party After Barack Obama Was Elected

    Here’s a series of charts from Pew Research showing the party ID of white voters. I have helpfully added a dashed line for the year 2010:

    With the (odd) exception of the group with some college, the party ID of white voters had a big inflection point in 2010. There was only modest movement before then, but starting in 2010 the high school crowd suddently flocked to the Republican Party while the college crowd flocked to the Democratic Party.

    Two things happened around 2010 that could have affected voters strongly: the Great Recession and the presidency of Barack Obama. However, the Great Recession affected everyone fairly equally: high school grads saw an income drop of about 7 percent while college grads saw an income drop of 5 percent (between 2008 and 2012). There’s no special reason that high school and college grads should have reacted in violently opposite directions to that.

    So that leaves Barack Obama. White high school grads saw a black Democrat in the White House and fled from the Democratic Party. White college grads saw a black Democrat in the White House and stampeded to the Democratic Party.

    Note that among high school grads, Donald Trump really had nothing to do with this: they had already abandoned the Democratic Party by 2015 and nothing much changed over the next two years. Among college grads, however, the change of party ID accelerated when Trump took the stage. This suggests, perhaps, that Trump hasn’t done much to attract more white votes to the Republican Party, but he has done a lot to lose white votes. This is not good news for Republicans in 2018. As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham so vividly said once, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” We can hope he was right.