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Monday, February 27, 2017

Political Potpourri

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez defeated Rep. Keith Ellison for DNC chair.  At the Washington Post, David Weigel writes:
Perez saw an opening to run in December because, after a month as a declared candidate, Ellison was seen to have just one-sixth of the DNC behind him. But as state parties elected new members this year, Ellison's numbers ticked up. It happened most dramatically in Kansas, where, on the day of the DNC vote, two new pro-Ellison members were winning office and trying to get proxy votes for him back in Atlanta.
In 2016, Sanders won the support of just 39 of the DNC's 447 voting members — all of whom, infamously, were superdelegates to the party's convention. Nine months after Sanders's defeat, Ellison won the votes of 200 DNC members. Some, like the AFT's Randi Weingarten, had been Clinton supporters, but plenty had been brought into the party by Sanders. Ellison's defeat, ironically, meant that tens or hundreds of thousands of activists who might have joined the party were now wringing their hands instead. But in states where Sanders performed strongly in 2016, just as many activists were already in the middle of a takeover. It just didn't happen in time for Ellison.

Brian Bennett reports at The Los Angeles Times:
President Trump is proposing a massive increase in defense spending of $54 billion while cutting domestic spending and foreign aid by the same amount, the White House said Monday.
Trump's spending blueprint previewed a major address that he will give Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress, laying out his vision for what he called a "public safety and national security budget" with a nearly 10% increase in defense spending.
Though Americans think that foreign aid accounts for   Foreign aid consists of budget subfunctions 151 (international development and humanitarian assistance) and 152 (international security assistance).  In fiscal 2017, these two items accounted for $40.7 billion in outlays.  In absolute dollars, that is a lot of money  -- but only about 1 percent of total federal spending ($4.1 trillion). Most people vastly overestimate foreign aid spending.

The White House ramped up its war against the press Friday, barring multiple outlets including the Daily News from asking questions of press secretary Sean Spicer.

The move came just hours after President Trump promised to "do something" about the "fake news" during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference — and after Spicer angrily scolded reporters Friday morning for recent coverage of the FBI's reported investigation of ties between Russia and Trump's team.

It seemed to be a calculated decision, possibly aimed at getting reporters to focus on inside-the-Beltway stories about the White House blocking access and playing games rather than bigger stories on what major actions the Trump administration is doing.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Juking the Stats, Trump-Style

The Trump administration has drafted preliminary economic growth forecasts in its federal budget planning that rely on assumptions that are far rosier than projections made by independent agencies and most private forecasters, according to several people familiar with the discussions.
The forecasts are being revised, these people said, following an internal debate. One concern is that pressing staff economists to produce aggressive forecasts might undercut the credibility of top appointees forced to later defend those numbers.
The deliberations show the challenge the administration faces as it tries to reconcile the competing goals of cutting taxes, boosting military and infrastructure spending, preserving Medicare and Social Security programs and keeping budget deficits from soaring.
The forecasts, which were initiated before President Donald Trump took office, project gross domestic product—a broad measure of national output of goods and services—growing between 3% and 3.5% a year over the coming decade, with inflation-adjusted annual growth ultimately settling at around 3.2% during the later years of the 10-year forecast.
The economy has grown around 2% on average over the past decade. Many economists believe sustained growth at more than 3% will be difficult to achieve without a sharp rebound in productivity growth and a reversal in the slowing expansion of the U.S. labor force, developments few are projecting. Worker productivity growth has slowed to 0.7% a year since 2010, a sharp slowdown from rates exceeding 3% in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
William Mauldin and Devlin Barrett report at The Wall Street Journal:
The Trump administration is considering changing the way it calculates U.S. trade deficits, a shift that would make the country’s trade gap appear larger than it had in past years, according to people involved in the discussions.
The leading idea under consideration would exclude from U.S. exports any goods first imported into the country, such as cars, and then transferred to a third country like Canada or Mexico unchanged, these people told The Wall Street Journal.
Economists say that approach would inflate trade deficit numbers because it would typically count goods as imports when they come into the country but not count the same goods when they go back out, known as re-exports.
Data on trade balances and surpluses, widely followed by Congress, are at the center of a political battle over whether existing trade agreements should be retained, renegotiated or tossed out altogether.
A larger trade deficit would give the Trump administration ammunition in arguing that trade deals need to be renegotiated, and might help boost political support for imposing tariffs.

Ana Swanson explains at The Washington Post:
The dollar figures, which come from the Treasury Department, are accurate, but they deserve a lot more context.
For one, Trump is citing such a narrow window of time that the statistics he’s pointing to don’t mean very much. The level of debt fluctuates day to day and week to week, depending on seasonal changes in growth and when the government makes payments, collects tax revenue, issues new debt and other debt matures — making the data very susceptible to cherry-picking.
Using the same logic, for example, you could claim that after four days in office Trump increased outstanding public debt by more than $10 billion, and that Obama had reduced it by $6 billion.
On Thursday, the public debt outstanding was $19.9 trillion — or, to be more exact, $19,913,903,120,188.10. And while that is less than it was on Inauguration Day, it's $29.2 billion more than it was on Feb. 8. All that goes to say you can't pay attention to infinitesimal movements in the debt week-to-week.
It’s impossible to know whether Trump’s election has really had time to filter through to concretely affect the economy. Congress has not passed any of his policies yet. The stock market has certainly continued to boom, but it was already rising before the election.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Defense of the International Order

Arshad Mohammed reports at Reuters:
The longest-serving U.S. diplomat warned against isolationism, protectionism and Russian aggression on Friday in a retirement speech implicitly criticizing some of U.S. President Donald Trump's policies even as he urged officials to serve the White House loyally.
Ambassador Dan Fried argued that since becoming a world power over a century ago, the United States had largely pursued an open, rules-based world, rejected "spheres of influence" where great powers bully their neighbors and contributed to "the longest period of general peace in the West since Roman times."
"This track record suggests that an open, rules-based world, with a united West at its core, is an asset and great achievement, and a foundation for more," the former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs said as he wrapped up a nearly 40-year career at the U.S. State Department.
"Yet, some argue that this is actually a liability, that values are a luxury, that in a Hobbesian or Darwinian world we should simply take our share, the largest possible," he added.

The comment was an implicit rebuke to the "America First" approach in which Trump has pledged to end what he sees as decades of other nations freeloading on U.S. security and exploiting trade agreements harmful to U.S. workers

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Silencing of Janet Nguyen

“Today, in a clear violation of my first amendment rights, I was silenced and forcibly removed from the Senate Floor during an adjournment in memory of Vietnamese and Vietnamese refugees which also offered another historic perspective on Former Senator Tom Hayden’s active support of North Vietnam’s Communist Regime during the Vietnam War.
I was especially perplexed by the actions taken against me because I notified the Senate Pro Tem’s office of my desire to speak on this subject matter and followed protocol. Out of respect for former Senator Hayden’s family, I also chose to wait to make my comments today rather than on the day they were present earlier this week. Nevertheless, the Senate leadership chose to censor me.
My family came to this country in search of the very freedom that was taken away from me this morning. I am deeply disappointed with Senate leadership’s actions because more than an act against me, Senate leadership silenced the voice of the residents of the 34th District, the more than 960,000 residents that I represent, whose freedoms of speech should never be silenced.”


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Expatriation Trends

On February 10, Adam Taylor reported at The Washington Post:
This week, the Treasury Department released its quarterly list of individuals who had chosen to “expatriate” — i.e., renounced their U.S. citizenship or gave up their rights to permanent residence.
The list is notable for a couple of reasons. First off, Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is on it. This means that Johnson, a dual-national who was born in New York City, has finally renounced his citizenship (as he had long promised he would). Secondly — and far more importantly in the grand scheme of things — the list shows that Johnson is just one of a total 5,411 individuals to expatriate in 2016.
As law firm Andrew Mitchel LLC noted on its blog, this was a 26 percent increase over 2015, when there were 4,279 names on the list. And it is a 58 percent increase over 2014, when there were 3,415 names on the list. As data collected by the firm showed, while the number of individuals who expatriated from the United States had stayed pretty flat from the 1960s — and actually dipping for a while in the 1990s and early 2000s — over the past five years it has dramatically surged upward.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world that requires its citizens and permanent residents to file taxes even when they live abroad. Eritrea is the only other country to have a similar policy. This unusual policy a relic of the Civil War and the Revenue Act of 1862, which called for the taxing of U.S. citizens abroad — in part to punish men who fled the country to avoid joining the Union army.
This is no new policy — Americans abroad have always been covered by federal tax laws. However, things changed in 2010, when the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) was enacted. This law essentially requires foreign financial institutions to check whether an account holder is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. In some cases, Dunn said, they would ask for proof that the account holder is not a U.S. citizen.
The end result here is that whereas in the past a U.S. citizen abroad might be able to get away with not filing their U.S. taxes, that has become vastly less likely under these new circumstances. In some cases, this can be extremely costly: Johnson was known to have racked up a large U.S. tax bill for the sale of his home in London, even though he had not lived in the U.S. since he was a small child.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bleak Economy

Nicholas Eberstadt writes at Commentary:
On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” For Americans outside the bubble, such talk must seem nonsensical. It is true that the oft-cited “civilian unemployment rate” looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era—in December 2016, it was down to 4.7 percent, about the same as it had been back in 1965, at a time of genuine full employment. The problem here is that the unemployment rate only tracks joblessness for those still in the labor force; it takes no account of workforce dropouts. Alas, the exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) Thus the “unemployment rate” increasingly looks like an antique index devised for some earlier and increasingly distant war: the economic equivalent of a musket inventory or a cavalry count. [emphasis added]
By the criterion of adult work rates, by contrast, employment conditions in America remain remarkably bleak. From late 2009 through early 2014, the country’s work rates more or less flatlined. So far as can be told, this is the only “recovery” in U.S. economic history in which that basic labor-market indicator almost completely failed to respond.
Since 2014, there has finally been a measure of improvement in the work rate—but it would be unwise to exaggerate the dimensions of that turnaround. As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.
Consider the following facts. First, according to the Census Bureau, geographical mobility in America has been on the decline for three decades, and in 2016 the annual movement of households from one location to the next was reportedly at an all-time (postwar) low. Second, as a study by three Federal Reserve economists and a Notre Dame colleague demonstrated last year, “labor market fluidity”—the churning between jobs that among other things allows people to get ahead—has been on the decline in the American labor market for decades, with no sign as yet of a turnaround. Finally, and not least important, a December 2016 report by the “Equal Opportunity Project,” a team led by the formidable Stanford economist Raj Chetty, calculated that the odds of a 30-year-old’s earning more than his parents at the same age was now just 51 percent: down from 86 percent 40 years ago. Other researchers who have examined the same data argue that the odds may not be quite as low as the Chetty team concludes, but agree that the chances of surpassing one’s parents’ real income have been on the downswing and are probably lower now than ever before in postwar America.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fighting Deletion

Melissa Chan reports at Time:
An Arizona man who has published thousands of animal welfare documents on his website since the government purged the once-public information is pledging to keep digging up data until federal officials reverse course.
Russ Kick, a 47-year-old writer and anthologist, said he immediately sprang into action last week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture suddenly pulled from its website a slew of papers regarding animal welfare at thousands of facilities across the country. Since then, he has made public again more than 10,000 documents, and thousands more are set to hit the web soon.
“We have the right to know what’s going on,” Kick told TIME on Thursday. “The more we know about what’s going on, the better.”
For nearly a year, Kick has been running a website called, where he has re-published information wiped from several agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. His only goal, he said, is to increase transparency and make important government documents more easily available.
More about the site here. 

At CNN, Eli Watkins and Laura Jarrett writes about Trump's deleted tweets:
Deleting a tweet is commonplace -- Twitter does not allow users to edit their messages after they post. The question is whether Trump is violating the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires all the president's records be preserved for eventual release to the public on a delayed basis long after the commander in chief leaves office.
The National Archives and Records Administration is tasked with managing the records. Reached by CNN on Friday, NARA spokesman John Valceanu said the PRA should be followed but directed all questions about the current president to the White House.
Reached for comment, Kelly Love, a White House spokeswoman, said Saturday, "We have systems in place to capture all tweets and preserve them as presidential records; even if they have been deleted."
She did not immediately provide further details, including whether those "systems" would apply to Trump's personal account as stringently as they do the @POTUS account. The PRA specifically does not distinguish between personal and work efforts, and the last provision of the law prohibits personal communications unless there is government redundancy.