Archive for the 'Current Events' Category

Weight Loss Advice From Big Name Economists


In my dream, Greg Mankiw and Larry Summers are advising a friend about weight loss.

Mankiw says: If you eat fewer calories, you’ll lose weight.

Summers replies: Not so fast! Sometimes if you eat less ice cream, you crave more cake. Then your calorie intake won’t change and you won’t lose weight. Greg’s advice is fine as an academic theory, but I doubt it will work in practice.

(Note here that Greg never mentioned ice cream in the first place.)

Of course Greg is 100% right, both in theory and in practice. If you eat fewer calories, you will lose weight. Summers responds that if you don’t eat fewer calories, you might not lose weight. True, but entirely off the mark.

I mention this because Mankiw had a recent blog post where he argued that if you cut taxes on capital income you’ll see a big rise in wages. (I happen to have blogged about this twice already in the past 24 hours, but those posts are irrelevant here.) Summers has replied that Mankiw is right in theory but likely to be wrong in practice, and lists three reasons. The first of those reasons comes down to saying that if you cut the corporate income tax, corporations are likely to end up paying more in other taxes, so you haven’t really cut the capital tax after all.

(Note here that Greg never mentioned corporate taxes in the first place.)

Okay, fine. So if you haven’t cut the capital tax, then Greg’s observation doesn’t apply. Likewise, if you haven’t really cut calories, you shouldn’t expect any weight loss. That’s not remotely a refutation.

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It’s All About the Rectangles

Greg Mankiw has a provocative post on how wages are affected by a cut in the tax rate on capital income. The short version: The effect is huge. If the government commits to a permanent tax cut that costs it $1 in revenue this year, then in the long run, annual wage payments will rise by $1.50 (and the annual revenue shortfall will be even less than $1).
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That strikes me as huge. Wages grow by more than government revenue falls — in fact, by a factor of about 1/(1-t), where t is the initial tax rate. Mankiw’s $1.50 comes from plugging in an initial tax rate of 1/3.

Although Mankiw’s calculation is simple, straightforward and convincing, it managed to drive me crazy for a substantial chunk of a day, because I didn’t really understand what was driving it. Now I do. So let me explain.

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Unhealthy

I have not read the Senate “health care” bill, but from the various summaries around the web, I am confident that Barack Obama is exactly correct in his pronouncement that this is not a health care bill. Republicans seem to be supporting the bill because it stems the tide of income redistribution and Democrats seem to be opposing it for the same reason.

But a health care bill that does nothing but change the distribution of income is (again in Obama’s words) not a health care bill. It’s an income redistribution bill, and a fairly stupid one at that. If you want either more or less redistribution, the way to do that is to adjust taxes on rich people and payments to poor people, not to muck around with the health care system.

On the other hand, if your goal is to make the health care system more efficient, then you’ll want a health care bill. What would it take to make the health care system more efficient? For one thing, it would require making people less reliant on insurance and more reliant on their own savings (probably in the form of Flexible Saving Accounts and Health Saving Accounts) so that their choices are constrained by an awareness of costs. This Senate bill, it seems, does absolutely nothing to address those issues. In fact, from what I’ve read, it leaves in place the tax deduction for employer-provided insurance (thereby continuing to incentivize people to buy too much insurance) and (at least according to some news articles) adds new taxes on Health Savings Accounts (thereby incentivizing people to rely even more on insurance). If we’re supposed to be marching toward more efficient health care, this sounds like a step backward, not forward.

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A Momentous Week

The most exciting news of the past week had nothing to do with James Comey or Donald Trump.

The University of Montpelier has released high-quality scans of about 18,000 pages of notes and scribbles by Alexandre Grothendieck. If you’re competent in both French and the art of deciphering handwriting that was never meant to be readable except to the author, you can while away some hours sifting through them here.

It would be an understatement to say that Grothendieck was never shy about revealing and publicly analyzing his thought processes, but these notes are presumably less filtered than the tens of thousands of pages he chose to share in his lifetime. FOr the many who are already sifting through them, and for the many more who are waiting to hear the reports of the sifters, they will yield new insights into one of the most extraordinary minds in human history.

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The Dire Prognosis

Here is what I wrote on this blog the day after the election:

The big loss is that there will be no unified right-of-center voice in American politics. Toomey, Portman and the rest of them will do what they can, but it’s Trump who will be taken to define Republicanism, which is to say that Republicanism will henceforth be pretty much the same thing as Democratism.

It gives me no pleasure to observe that with the new Trump-endorsed Republican health care plan, I stand vindicated.

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Missed Opportunities

I haven’t seen any of the details, but it looks like the Republican health care plan suffers from many of the same defects as Obamacare, and is in some ways worse.

Mainly: As far as I am currently aware, the plan pretty much leaves in place the main ongoing problem with health care, which is that most people are grossly overinsured, so that health care choices are too frequently made by insurance companies instead of by (cost-aware) consumers and providers. The solution, in broad terms, is to replace insurance with individual health savings accounts (which, if you’re worried about this sort of thing, can be just as heavily subsidized as insurance is). Plenty of Republicans know this, and have been saying it for a long time. But — at least according to what’s in the early news reports — they seem to have come up with a bill that ignores it.

In fact, the Republican bill makes things worse in at least one way, by lifting the Cadillac tax on employer-provided health care plans, thereby encouraging even more overinsurance.

Presumably this was the compromise among feuding factions that the Republican caucus was able to hammer out. Presumably, too, a little leadership from the one person with veto power could have yielded a much better outcome. Too bad the one person with veto power is a self-obsessed loonybird. I do believe a President Bush or a President Cruz — or even, perhaps, a President Clinton — would have insisted on something far far better.

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Ken Arrow, RIP

Ken Arrow was, until his passing today, the world’s greatest living economist. There are so many tributes to him all over the web that it would be superfluous for me to write another. Here’s a nice one.

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How Many Deaths Does It Take Till He Knows….?

President Trump wants to impose a 20% tariff on Mexican imports. How many Americans will that kill? Let’s play with some numbers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (I’m looking at Table 13 in that link) that in 2012, approximately 125 million U.S. households spent an average of $731 on fruits and vegetables. That’s about $91 billion altogether.

I learn from this page that the US imports about $9 billion worth of fresh fruits and vegetables each year from Mexico. That is, then, about 10% of our fruit and vegetable consumption.

I learn from various research reports around the web that the price elasticity of demand for fruits and vegetables is somewhere in the vicinity of .50. (Some say higher, some say lower). This means that a 20% tariff — as the president has just called for — will reduce imports by about 10%.

So the Trump tariff should reduce total U.S. fruit and vegetable consumption by about 10% of 10% — that is, about 1%.

(This is, deliberately, a considerable underestimate, since it entirely ignores the fact that the tariff will also lead to increases in the price of American vegetables, leading to further reduced consumption.)

Now here I learn that low fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with a higher risk of degenerative diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts and brain dysfunction. “More than 200 studies in the epidemiological literature show, with great consistency, an association between low consumption of fruits and vegetables and high cancer incidence.” Many of the mechanisms for this are well understood. For example, folic acid deficiency leads to chromosome breaks and then to cancer. Your health risks do not drop off continuously with your vegetable consumption; instead there are sudden changes — you’re either above or below the level where chromosome breaks occur. (There are similar issues with at least eight other micronutrients — in addition to folic acid — that we get from fruits and vegetables.) About 10% of the U.S. population is below that critical level. Most of those have very low incomes. (The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, about 5 million people a year die from inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption, and most of those are very poor.) For a first (very rough) approximation, let’s assume that those with folic acid deficiencies are in fact the poorest 10%. You can see here that these are people with individual incomes below about $10,000.

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How to Feel (Much) Better About the Outcome of the Presidential Election

I want to really marry the public and the private sector.

–Hillary Clinton

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Did Gary Johnson Matter?

garyjohnsonThe following analysis assumes (as seems likely) that Trump has won Minnesota, Michigan, Arizona and Alaska, while Clinton has won New Hampshire. This gives Trump a total of 316 electoral votes, or 46 more than he needed.

Gary Johnson’s vote share exceeded the Trump/Clinton margin in 10 states, 6 of which (with a total of 38 electoral votes) were won by Cliniton and 4 of which (with a total of 75 electoral votes) were won by Trump.

Therefore, without Johnson in the race (and assuming that his absence wouldn’t have switched any Clinton voters to Trump voters or vice versa), Trump might have won as few as 316-75=241 electoral votes (making Clinton the president-elect) or as many as 316+38=342.

From there, you can draw your own conclusions.

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Late Night Thoughts

Hey, stay calm. Germany elected Hitler, and they survived okay.

Less flippantly, there are some silver linings in this very dark cloud:

  • Lots of good people re-elected to the Senate: Portman, Toomey — still waiting to hear on Ayotte. This means there will be at least some smart and forceful advocates for what we used to call Republicanism.
  • ObamaCare will probably be repealed and might be replaced by something better. (Or not.) It even stands a chance of being replaced by something much better, along these lines.
  • Dodd-Frank is probably about to go away. Again, that stands a chance of being excellent news, depending on what it’s replaced with.
  • The estate tax is likely to be finally dead and buried. Beyond that, there is at least some hope for broader tax reform (closing loopholes, lowering rates, fewer incentives to overconsume, etc). I’m not aware that Trump has ever shown much enthusiasm for this, but if Congress takes the initiative there’s a least a chance of avoiding the veto that would have been certain under Clinton.
  • Donald Trump will name the successor to Antonin Scalia, along with, probably another one or two or three Supreme Court justices. I am hopeful that he’s sufficiently uninterested in constitutional law that he’ll hand over the choosing to someone like Mike Pence. Compared to what we’d have gotten from Hillary Clinton, this would be a majorly good thing. Of course it’s equally likely he’ll nominate, oh, John Gotti, Jr. or someone. But we have reason for hope.
  • More generally, we can at least hope that Trump is sufficiently uninterested in governing that he’ll hand over everything to someone like Mike Pence.

None of this remotely compensates for the prospect of living in an America where Trumpian stormtroppers go door to door ferretting out people to deport. None of it compensates for the Trump Depression that we’re in for if he’s serious about his trade policies. But it’s something.

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The Dilbert View

scottadamsThroughout this election season, Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) has been right when I (and a whole lot of others) have been wrong. On his blog, Adams kept patiently explaining why Donald Trump would be a strong contender, while I and a great many others believed (or maybe just hoped and therefore believed we believed?) that Trump was a flash in the pan. Each of the many times that Trump seemed to take himself out of contention, Adams predicted he’d survive and even thrive — and each time, Adams was right.

Now, however, Adams has turned his attention from Trump’s merits as a candidate (where Adams seems to have had a great deal of insight) to Trump’s merits as a potential president. And here, despite all his past successes, I am quite sure that Adams has outrun his expertise. Policy analysis and political analysis are, after all, two very different things.

From Adams’s most recent blog post:

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Quibbling with Kotlikoff

kotlikoffLarry Kotlikoff is probably the smartest, the most honest and the most thoughtful person ever to run for President of the United States. His platform is well worth a read. The latter part is crammed with carefully considered policy proposals. I’d be very happy to see his tax and health care reforms adopted wholesale. I might vote for him.

That said, I’m annoyed by some of the rhetoric in the early part of the platform document, and I’ve attached some of my quibbles below. (These quibbles stop, arbitrarily, at the end of Kotlikoff’s chapter 4, which is not meant to imply that I have no further quibbles.) In a few cases, I’ve expressed these quibbles harshly. Let me, then, make this perfectly clear up front: I am sure that Kotlikoff has thought about some of this stuff harder than I have. Nevertheless, here’s some of what bugs me:

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A Choice, Not an Echo

There is at least one national candidate for President this year who you can be sure really understands economics. That’s Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University with a long string of high professional honors and a history of great accomplishment in both academics and public service (more here). His running mate, Ed Leamer, is no slouch either.

Kotlikoff and Leamer are not on the ballot, but they are registered write-in candidates (the result of a long and arduous process) which means that their write-ins will be counted (unlike write-ins for, say, Daffy Duck). This is a great way to send the message that you prefer a president who is in the habit of making sense. Here is Kotlikoff practicing that habit:

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The Last Debate


    

Trump did very well, in the sense that if you hadn’t already known it, you might not have guessed he was a madman. But nothing could be more infuriating than to hear him pitch himself as the candidate of change.

For many decades, the federal government has become bigger and more intrusive. Hilary Clinton wants it to be even bigger and even more intrusive. So does Donald Trump. In this they do not differ. She more or less admits it; he flat out lies.

So let’s remind ourselves that Trump wants a government that is more dictatorial regarding who you can trade with, where you can locate your business, the wage contracts you can negotiate, and who you can invite into your living room. He has no problem with entitlement growth, and when asked what he would cut, has consistently answered “waste, fraud and abuse”, suggesting that he has no problem with any of the big ticket items — no problem with a federal government that maintains Departments of Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, Education, Energy, Transporation, and all the rest of it. Given ample opportunities, he’s never even been able to muster a word of opposition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Donald Trump

trumpIs Donald Trump a racist? I am aware of nothing that would make me think so, but I am also aware that I am not the person most likely to be aware of such things. But I’m not sure it much matters anyway. Under our system of government, and in the current century, it would be rather difficult, I think, for even the most racist of presidents to erect signficant barriers to trade between people of different races. As long as the darkness in a man or woman’s heart does no material harm, I think we can live with it.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly a xenophobe, which makes him as unlikable as a racist, and matters a hell of a lot more, given the ease with which our government routinely erects trade barriers between people of different nationalities.

So the answer to “Is Trump a racist?” is: I’d guess not, I don’t really care (except insofar as I wish nobody were a racist), and it’s the wrong question anyway. The right question is: “Is Trump a xenophobe?”, to which the answer is yes — and it matters.

Is Donald Trump a serial groper? The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, he seems to have lived several decades in the public eye without any visible complaints. On the other hand, we have the notorious Carpe Vulva tape, along with the flood of accusations that followed. The fact that those accusations gibe so closely with the words on the tape could be seen as evidence either for or against their veracity.

But again, who cares, really? The extent of Trump’s boorishness, whatever it may be, seems unlikely to be much different in or out of the Oval Office, and is therefore largely irrelevant to whether it would be a good idea to install him in that office.

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That Debate


    

They were both so dreadful in so many ways that I don’t have the heart to review it all.

But just because it came near the very end, this is what sticks in my mind.

I am paraphrasing from memory here, but I believe that Mrs. Clinton “accused” Mr. Trump of having said that:

  1. Pregnancy is inconvenient to employers.
  2. When a female employee is less productive than a male employee, it is reasonable for that female employee to be paid less.

Quite independent of the question of whether Mr. Trump did or did not say these things, in what sense are these accusations? Specifically:

  1. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that pregnancy is frequently inconvenient for employers? If not, she is so thoroughly out of touch with the realities of running a business that this alone would be a good reason not to vote for her.
  2. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that it’s a good thing for more effective employees to be paid more than less effective employees — not least because this sends a signal to those less effective employees that they might be more socially useful doing something different? If so, she is so thoroughly out of touch with how markets work (and should work), and so thoroughly oblivious to the importance of efficient resource allocation, that it should be almost unthinkable to vote for her.

Historical Perspective

Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?


–Henry II, 1170

Nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.


–Donald Trump, 2016

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Interventionists


       

Fox News reports that senior Republicans, including Reince Preibus, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuiiani, are planning an “intervention” to try to talk Donald Trump down from putting his psychopathy quite so visibly on display. The psychopathy itself is presumably intervention-proof.

Which raises the question: Why intervene? Presumably the answer is: To get this man elected as President of the United States, from which venue the psychopathy will have free reign. The very necessity of the intervention implies that if the intervention is successful, it must be disastrous. We intervene with drunkards to begin the slow process of returning them to a normal life. We do not intervene with drunkards to get them to hide their drinking so they can be hired as jet pilots in three months’ time.

I realize that there are still a few scattered people who think (or at least hope) that Trump’s whole idiot-manchild schtick is just some kind of an act, and that there is some substance beneath the lunacy. Presumably those who believe that an intervention is necessary are not among those scattered few. This makes it their responsibility, at a minimum, to stop trying to elect him.

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Pretty Good Ad

This blog does not endorse any candidate for anything, and will never be shy about decrying nonsense, no matter the source. That said, this is an ad worth watching:

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The All-Purpose Defense

President Obama, defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just said something very like the following (I heard this on the radio and am quoting from memory):

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to sell things all over the world and never buy anything.

Oh. I assume, then, that he’ll be defending his jobs program in terms something like this:

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to work all day and never get paid.

For that matter, this also works as a defense of Obamacare:

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where get to spend all our time in hospitals and never get well.

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In Praise of Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Nancy Patton Mills, David Wecht, Christine Donohue, Heather ArnetIn 2016, one of the country’s two major political parties was rocked by an insurgent demagogue who prospered by pandering to ignorance, xenophobia, blind hatred and outright stupidity. So was the other one. One party fought back. The other didn’t.

I am aware that many people, and especially even readers of this blog (including myself at times) believe that the vast majority of polticians prosper by pandering to ignorance, xenophobia, blind hatred and outright stupidity. But the Trump/Sanders phenomenon took this to a whole new level. Never before in my memory have politicians with a real shot at the presidency been so aggressive in their refusals even to try making sense, or in their denials that making sense is a virtue. Never before have they been so forthright in their insistence that as long as we all hate the right people, everything will be alright.

For roughly 40 years now, the Democrats and the Republicans, in their highly imperfect and frequently corrupt ways, have offered competing visions for the country and have, in their highly imperfect and frequently dishonest ways, fostered debate about the merits of those visions. Highly imperfect, frequently corrupt and dishonest — but still with at least some nods toward the value of rational discourse, and, though less often than I’d like, sometimes with considerably more than nods. Politicians in both parties have been known to demonstrate by example that it is possible to be spirited without being mean-spirited, that there is a difference between an argument and an insult, and that your opponents need not be your enemies.

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It’s Official


     

The enemy — he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury it secretly in some flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

— Whittaker Chambers
Letter to W.F. Buckley, August 5, 1954

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The Dream Ticket


She hasn’t asked me, but I know who Hilary Clinton should choose as a running mate.

She should choose Jeb Bush. Then she should immediately issue this statement:

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Trumponomics

trumpFollowing the latest round of drivel from Donald Trump, this might be a good time to review the standard textbook case for free trade. (You’ll also find this spelled out in The Big Questions .)

Suppose American manufacturers sell 1000 widgets a year to American consumers at a price of $9 each. Now, thanks to a new free trade agreement, foreign manufacturers can sell widgets to American consumers at $6 each. Let’s try to account for all the different ways that Americans are affected.

1. American manufacturers have two choices: They can match the foreign price of $6, or they can go do something else. If they match the foreign price, they lose $3 per widget (compared to what they were making before). If instead they go do something else, they lose at most $3 per widget. We know this, because they always have the option of matching the foreign price and therefore won’t choose any option worse than that. Therefore, the loss to American manufacturers is at most $3000. (In fact, under very mild assumptions, which almost always hold, the loss is surely less than $3000, but we won’t need to know that here.)

2. Existing American consumers — the ones who were going to buy those 1000 widgets anyway — pay $6 per widget instead of $9 per widget, and therefore collectively save $3000.

3. Some Americans who were unwilling to buy widgets at $9 will happily buy them at $6, and will be happy with their purchases. This is an additional gain to Americans.

Bottom line: American producers lose at most $3000. Existing American consumers gain $3000. New American consumers gain something too. Therefore the gains to Americans must exceed the losses to Americans.

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Quickie

A quick question for my friends who vote Democratic and support much stricter gun control:

If, one year from today, Donald Trump is the head of the government, will you really want that government to have a monopoly on automatic weapons?

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Clintonomics

Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business OwnersAre you a corporate employee who wishes that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?

I have good news for you: There’s an easy way to make that happen. Take 10% (or 5% or 20%) of your wages, and use them to buy corporate stock.

Are you a corporate employee who *doesn’t* wish that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?

I have good news for you, too. You don’t have to buy additional stock if you don’t want to.

Hilary Clinton, however, wants to change all that. She wants to force you into a profit sharing arrangement that is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to forcibly converting part of your salary into corporate stock. If you were planning to do that anyway, this will make no difference to you. If you weren’t planning to do it anyway — if, for example, you preferred to diversify your risks by investing your wages in some other industry — then, of course, this will make you worse off.

(I trust that none of my regular readers is silly enough to respond that Clinton’s plan is much better than buying stock, because you get the profit-sharing in addition to your existing salary. But for the benefit of the occasional drive-by reader, this is not possible. Market pressures insure that your total compensation is equal to the value of what you produce for the company, and if one facet of that compensation goes up, then another must go down.)

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Consistency Check

Donald Trump, objecting to the President’s post-Orlando call for stricter gun control, says that the president has “no clue”. Why? Because “The shooter was licensed…So he would have passed the test that the president would have thrown up there”.

Instead, Mr. Trump tells us that the lesson of Orlando is “We can’t let people in”. Of course, the Orlando murderer was a natural-born U.S. citizen, so he would have passed the test that Mr. Trump would have thrown up there.

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Consistency Check


Should we presume that the race or ethnic heritage of a judge is likely to affect that judge’s rulings?

Donald Trump thinks so. So does Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who says this:

I, for one, do think there is a disadvantage from having (five) Catholics, three Jews, everyone from an Ivy League school.

A different perspective can permit you to more fully understand the arguments that are before you.

And:

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

I have three questions for my readers:

  1. Is Trump’s opinion an instance of despicable racism?
  2. Is Sotomayor’s opinion an instance of despicable racism?
  3. Did you give the same answers to questions 1 and 2?
  4. If your answer to question 3 was “No”, do you want to rethink this?

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Promise Keeping

So apparently last week, while my attention was directed elsewhere, Donald Trump attempted to attract the support of conservatives by promising to choose all of his Supreme Court appointments from a short list of candidates who he believes conservatives will find appealing.

Regardless of what you think of those individual candidates, there is absolutely no reason this gambit should garner support from conservatives for the simple reasont that the promise is not enforceable. This would be a problem with any politician, but particularly with Trump, who has never felt any qualms (or even, as far as I can see, any embarrassment) about shifting his positions 180 degrees from one day to the next.

But there’s a way to fix that problem, and it’s available not just to Trump but to any politician with credibility issues. Let him issue a list of specific promises (such as “All of my Supreme Court appointments will come from this list”) and then put the bulk of his personal wealth in an escrow account, to be returned to him if he loses the election or if he serves and keeps his promises — and to be paid to someone else if he’s elected and breaks those promises. The named beneficiary could be, for example, the U.S. Treasury, or — if the candidate is particularly concerned about attracting the votes of traditional Republicans — the Republican National Committee.

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