Monday, March 7, 2016

Unsound Minds

He speaks his mind, but his mind isn't right.

-- 13-year-old Jayka,
in "Kids Have More Sense than Donald Trump Fans"
(which, sadly, seems to have been removed)

This week's featured post is "Peak Drumpf", where I make the case that we finally have the right anti-Trump argument.

This week everybody was talking about that strange debate

The best response to Trump's nationally televised, out-of-the-blue claims about his genitalia is College Humor's #TrumpShowUsYourPenis campaign.

It's about transparency. He brought the subject up, and since fact-checkers have determined that so many of his other claims are false, this one requires evidence. The demand isn't even partisan: If Hillary claimed to have a big penis, they'd want to see that too.

and the presidential race in general

After Super Tuesday, the question in both parties has been: "Is it over?"

I've been amazed by the number of pundits I've heard say something equivalent to: "Unless something changes, the leaders will end up winning" -- as if this were the kind of wisdom people should pay them for. (A better version is sometimes attributed either to Yogi Berra or a Chinese proverb: "If you don't change, you'll end up where you're headed.")

The most intelligent answer to the question comes, as it so often does, from Nate Silver's 538. Using a model of which states are good for which candidates, they've traced a most-likely-path-to-the-nomination for each candidate. In other words: If a candidate were going to just barely win a majority of the pledged delegates -- phrasing the question that way puts to the side what the Democratic super-delegates will do -- how many would you expect come from each primary or caucus? And how does that compare with the number of delegates that candidate has gotten in the contests decided so far?

On the Republican side, Donald Trump is running 5% ahead of his minimum winning pace. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is 14% ahead of pace.

Neither of those leads is all that intimidating in an absolute sense, given that something like 2/3 of the delegates are still to be chosen. But what is making Trump and especially Clinton seem inevitable is that some underlying trend has to change before anybody can beat either of them. Cruz or Rubio has to catch fire, or Sanders has to become competitive among black voters, or something.

If you can't say exactly what that "something" is or why it's going to start happening now (when it hasn't been happening so far), the current trend feels locked in. That's why George Orwell observed, "Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible."

I will say this about the Democratic race: I think the results so far show that blacks plus older voters plus middle-aged women is a winning coalition for Clinton. Sanders can't turn things around unless he breaks that somehow.

A sports analogy: Sanders' situation is like a running football team (i.e., a slow-and-steady offense) that falls behind. At some point the team has to drop its running game plan and start passing, because time is running out. It's not that Sanders can't win at this point, but that he can't win just by continuing to do what he's been doing. Pushing the analogy further, Clinton could still blunder into losing, as the other team could if it committed a string of turnovers.

Tomorrow's Michigan primary is a good test. If Sanders were to become competitive among blacks and pull off a win in Michigan -- which in an abstract sense ought to be perfect for his economic message -- the race would be wide open. Clinton's lead would then look like a regional Southern thing.

But the polls say that's not going to happen. The RCP average of polls in Michigan has Clinton up by 22 points, and the poll most favorable to Sanders still has him trailing by 11. Nate Silver gives Clinton a 99% chance of winning in both Michigan and tomorrow's other primary, Mississippi.

About the super-delegates: My personal opinion is that if Clinton and Sanders wind up virtually tied, the super-delegates will put Hillary over the top. But if Sanders has any advantage larger than a round-off error, the super-delegates will come around as well.

Last week I discussed Clinton's strong showing among black voters from the point of view of "What do I know? I'm a white guy."

I've got something better this week. Dopper0189 on Daily Kos explains "Why black voters vote the way they do". It's a long post with a lot of different insights, very few of which I would have guessed.

The big thing I learn from dopper0189 is that you can't win over the black community with an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. Even if your policies seem (to you) like they would obviously benefit many blacks, you have to go out and sell those policies to the black community in very specific terms. This isn't because blacks can't make the connections themselves, but because they've seen those connections fail so many times. Plans that are targeted at "everybody" somehow wind up defining "everybody" in a way that leaves them out. That goes all the way back to Social Security, which originally made no provision for household servants or field workers or many other black-dominated jobs.

Going forward, let's look past Bernie for a minute, to 2020 or 2024. If a future progressive candidate is going to marshal the kind of black support that it seems s/he ought to get, it's going to take a lot of work over a period of time. The candidate is going to have to start building those relationships well before the campaign, the way Hillary did.

and you might also be interested in

Trump introduced his healthcare plan. It's about what I expected: A collection of ideas that have been hashed over in Republican circles for years -- like circumventing state regulators by letting insurance companies sell from whatever state they want (presumably the one that most tilts the field in their favor) -- plus a number of promises and assurances that the specified proposals don't deliver. Vox comments:

He says, "We must also make sure that no one slips through the cracks simply because they cannot afford insurance. We must review basic options for Medicaid and work with states to ensure that those who want healthcare coverage can have it."

There's a hint of a promise there that under Trumpcare, everything will be fine. Everyone will have access to health insurance, should they desire it. But there's nothing in Trump's proposal that takes him from point A to point B. There's no explanation of whether the government will pay for this care and how they'll deliver it

Two things stand out: TrumpCare eliminates ObamaCare's guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can buy insurance on reasonable terms. And rather than the subsidies ObamaCare offers to help poor and working-class people buy insurance, Trump offers only a tax deduction for premiums. So if you aren't currently paying income tax, you get no help buying health insurance; and if you are paying income tax, those who pay a higher rate benefit more from the deduction.

Unemployment continues to fall: down to 4.9% in February. That's the lowest rate since February, 2008, when President Bush's economic collapse was just getting started.

Critics from Bernie Sanders to Ben Carson sometimes express skepticism about the unemployment rate, since it doesn't count would-be workers too discouraged to look for a job, part-time workers who want full-time work but can't find it, and various other people who have reason to be disappointed in the job market.

But as I've explained before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of those folks too. It publishes a variety of unemployment measures, prosaically denoted U-1 through U-6. U-1 is people unemployed for more than 15 weeks (currently 2.1%, flat since October, down from 2.5% a year ago). The unemployment rate you see in the headlines is U-3, while U-6 is the broadest measure of unemployment.

U-6 in February was 9.7%, which sounds bad compared to 4.9%, but also reflects a big improvement in the job market when you make apples-to-apples comparisons: A year ago U-6 was 11%. It hasn't been this low since May, 2008, and it peaked at 17.1% in late 2009 and early 2010.

Governor Bobby Jindal writes in the WSJ that President Obama is to blame for Donald Trump. That is true in the same sense that President Lincoln was to blame for the KKK. If he'd just left slavery alone, the backlash against abolition would never have been necessary.

I'm left wondering if Jindal has found some way to blame Obama for the mess the Jindal administration left behind in Louisiana.

I've got a book recommendation: Misbehaving, the making of behavioral economics by Richard H. Thaler. The standard economics (which you may have learned in college) is based on the notion that markets are made up of rational actors who use all the publicly available information to make the best possible individual decisions. Everybody knows that's not strictly true, but since the 1950s economists have held that it's a good-enough assumption for making economic predictions.

Since the 1970s, Thaler's career has revolved around poking holes in that worldview. In other words, he's been looking for and documenting situations where the quirky decision-making of real human beings leads to results very different than the rational-actor models constructed by economists.

Not only is that an interesting topic that has all sorts of fascinating real-world applications (including the over-valuing of high draft picks in the NFL), but Thaler is a marvelous story-teller. His stories -- of experiments in human decision-making, and of his attempts to introduce more realistic thinking into the stuffy and self-important world of academic economists -- are consistently amusing. The book's ongoing theme is that whether you are talking about contestants on Dutch game shows or University of Chicago business school professors choosing offices in a new building, people are funny -- and you can't really understand the world until you account for the predicable ways that people are funny.

The title has a wonderful double meaning: Economic models can fail when humans "misbehave" by not making the supposedly rational choices the model calls for. But by pointing out such embarrassing glitches, Thaler was also "misbehaving" according to the community standards of economists. So his career is a story of successful rebellion.

Finally, there's political significance to the revolution Thaler has been leading: Idealizing markets, and exaggerating the powers of the people who participate in them, tempts a person to turn all of society's decision-making over to "the Market". For decades, economists' false assumptions have biased their analysis in favor of market-based solutions. But people who are still making those simplistic Econ-101 arguments in favor of free markets are behind the times. They are, as Keynes observed, "slaves of some defunct economist".

and let's close with some tongue-in-cheek advice to black filmmakers

If they'd wanted Straight Outta Compton to win an Oscar, it should have centered on Paul Giamatti's character. If you're not getting the joke, read David Sirota's essay "Oscar Loves a White Savior".

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