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Productivity Is the Key to Economic Growth

Mother Jones

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Mick Mulvaney says the haters don’t know what they’re talking about:

In his remarks Tuesday, Mulvaney mentioned that the economy had often grown in the past at rates of 3 percent and called people’s objections to the Trump administration’s expectation of growth rates that high “absurd.”

“It used to be normal. Ten years ago, it was normal. In fact, it’s been normal for the history of the country,” said Mulvaney.

Mulvaney is sort of right about this. But there’s more to it. The basic formula for economic growth is simple: Economic growth = Population growth + Productivity growth. Population growth has been slowing down for decades, and Mulvaney isn’t going to change that. We know exactly what the population of the country is going to be over the next few years.

So that leaves productivity growth, which the BLS estimates here. Here’s what all three factors have looked like since 1960:

In order to achieve 3 percent economic growth, we need productivity growth of about 2.3 percent. This is decidedly not normal for the history of the country—not in the past 50 years, anyway. With the brief exception of the unsustainable housing bubble era, we haven’t hit that since the end of 60s.

Productivity growth is a real problem, and it’s something of a mystery why it’s been so low lately. But it’s a mystery to Mulvaney too, and it’s certainly not due to punitive tax rates or heavy-handed regulations. Despite this, Mulvaney is suggesting that Trump can more than double the productivity growth rate of the past ten years, reaching a target we haven’t hit in a normal, healthy economy for the past half century. There’s simply no reason to believe this, and Mulvaney hasn’t even tried to explain how he thinks Trump can accomplish it. Not even hand waving. He’s literally said nothing about productivity growth at all.

Until he does, nobody should believe his growth estimates. It all comes down to productivity, and that’s what Mulvaney needs to talk about.

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Productivity Is the Key to Economic Growth

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Drunk Driving Followup: The Mystery Solved!

Mother Jones

Yesterday I wrote about the mystery of drunk driving: if stricter laws and harsher punishments really are responsible for a decline in drunk driving, why is it that alcohol-related fatalities have only declined at the same rate as every other kind of road fatality? Is it possible that all those laws have been useless?

I got several good responses, which confirmed that there’s a bit of a mystery here but pointed out that my data only went back to 1994. This misses the significant drop in drunk driving during the 80s and early 90s. Then I got an email from Darren Grant, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, pointing me to a paper that decomposes exactly what happened and when. Grant’s paper, which relies on a microdata-based model of traffic fatalities, concludes that it’s legitimate to use the percentage of all road fatalities that involve alcohol—which has been flat for many years—as a proxy for the amount of drunk driving. It also breaks down the reason for the decline in drunk driving during the 80s and 90s. Without further ado, here is his chart:

There are several takeaways from this:

During the 80s and early 90s, drunk driving decreased significantly.
By the mid-90s, the level of drunk driving flattened out and has been flat ever since.
The effect of laws on drunk driving has been pretty modest. That’s the red band in the chart. Stricter laws are responsible for only a small fraction of the total decline.

There’s potentially some good news here. Grant concludes that the biggest effect by far has been from social forces, namely the increased stigma associated with drunk driving. If you discount demographics, which we have no control over, social stigma accounts for about half the drop in drunk driving. This suggests that what we need isn’t so much stricter laws, but a revitalized campaign to even further stigmatize drunk driving. I’m on board with that.

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Drunk Driving Followup: The Mystery Solved!

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The Genius Who Helped Unlock the Human Genome Is Taking On the Opioid Crisis

Mother Jones

Francis Collins, the gregarious 67-year-old who directs the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Collins made a name for himself in the early 2000s when, as director of the Human Genome Project, he oversaw the completion of sequencing 3 billion genes. Now, as the head of the nation’s foremost biomedical research engine, Collins faces a new task: finding solutions to the opioid epidemic, which killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015.

At the Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Conference last month, Collins announced a public-private partnership, in which the NIH will collaborate with biomedical and pharmaceutical companies to develop solutions to the crisis. President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price “strongly supported” the idea, he said. This isn’t Collins’ first such partnership: During his tenure as director—Barack Obama appointed him in 2009—Collins has developed ongoing collaborations with pharmaceutical companies such as Lilly, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. For each partnership, the NIH and the companies pool tens of millions of dollars, with the agreement that the resulting data will be public and the companies will not immediately patent treatments. The jury’s still out on results—the partnerships are about halfway through their five-year timelines. But Collins, a self-described optimist, remains hopeful. “Traditionally it takes many years to go from an idea about a drug target to an approved drug,” said Collins at the conference. “Yet I believe…a vigorous public private partnership could cut that time maybe even in half.”

I talked to Collins about the partnership, potential treatments in the pipeline, and the NIH’s role in confronting the ongoing epidemic.

Mother Jones: Why is a public-private partnership needed?

Francis Collins: While NIH can do a lot of the good science, and we can accelerate it if we have resources, we aren’t going to be the ones making pills. Many of the large-scale clinical trials are not done generally by us but by the drug companies. A successful outcome here—in terms of ultimately getting rid of opioids and the deaths that they cause—would not happen without full engagement by the private sector.

MJ: Which companies will be involved?

FC: It will be a significant proportion of the largest companies. I can’t tell you the total list—as I said, the 15 largest were there. Certainly the groups that already have some drugs that are somewhere in the pipeline will be particularly interested in ways to speed that up.

MJ: What do you hope will come out of it in the short term?

FC: I think that we could increase the number of effective options to help people get over addiction, and the treatments for overdose, particularly when fentanyl is becoming such a prominent part of this dangerous situation. The current overdose treatments are not necessarily as strong as they need to be. We could make progress there pretty quickly, I think—in a matter of even a year or two—by coming up with formulations of drugs that we know work but in a fashion that would have new kinds of capabilities. The drugs would be stronger, as in the overdose situation, or have the potential of longer-acting effects, as in treating addiction. It’s not necessarily a different drug, but a different formulation of the drug. And drug companies are pretty good at that.

MJ: And in the long term?

FC: The goal really needs to be to find nonaddictive but highly potent pain medicines that can replace the use of opioids given the terrible consequences that surround their use. This will be particularly important for people who have chronic pain, where we really don’t have effective treatments now. The good news is that there’s a lot of really interesting science pointing us to new alternatives, like the idea of coming up with something that interacts with that opioid receptor but only activates the pathway that results in pain relief—not the somewhat different pathway that results in addiction. That’s a pretty new discovery that could actually be workable, and a lot of effort ought to be put into that.

I’d like all of us, the academics, the government, and the private sector, to think about this the way we thought about HIV/AIDs in the early 1990s, where people were dying all around us in tens of thousands. Well, that’s what’s happening now with opioids. This ought to be all hands on deck—what could we do to accelerate what otherwise might take a lot longer? It’s interesting talking to the drug companies, who have really gotten quite motivated and seem to be determined to make a real contribution here. There are quite a number of new drugs that are in the pipeline somewhere, and they haven’t been moving very quickly, because companies haven’t been convinced there was enough of a market—opioids are relatively cheap. And also they’ve been worried that it would be hard to get new pain medicines approved if they had any side effects at all. Now that we’ve seen opioids have the most terrible side effect of all—namely, death—it would seem that as new analgesics come along, that the ability to approve some that might give you a stomachache now and then would probably be better.

MJ: There’s a lot of wariness of big pharmaceutical companies right now, given Big Pharma’s role in creating this problem to begin with. How do you make sure that whatever treatments are developed are affordable?

FC: That’s a very big concern for everybody right now. It’s front and center in these discussions about development of new drugs and pricing of existing drugs. And I don’t know the full answer to that. This is just part of a larger discussion about drug pricing which applies across the board, whether we’re talking about drugs for cardiovascular disease or cancer or, in this case, alternatives for opioids. But we need them. As much as people might want to say, “Oh, pharmaceutical companies, they’re all just out to make money,” they also have the scientific capabilities and they spend about twice what the government does on research and development. If they weren’t there, we’d be completely hopeless as far as new treatment.

MJ: Trump’s latest budget proposes a 20 percent cut to the NIH for 2018. Are you worried about having enough funding?

FC: Of course I am. And not just for this, but for all the other things that NIH is called upon to do as part of our mission. I’m an optimist, and what I have seen in my 24 years at NIH is that opportunity in medical research is not a partisan issue—it’s not something that’s caught up in politics most of the time. And having seen the enthusiasm represented by the Congress in their passage of the 21st Century Cures Act just four months ago with incredible positive bipartisan margins, I think when the dust all settles, people will look at these kinds of investments and see them as a high priority for our nation. But of course, that’s my optimistic view.

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The Genius Who Helped Unlock the Human Genome Is Taking On the Opioid Crisis

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There’s No Way Republicans Will Truly Confront Trump on His Scandals. It Would Destroy Their Party.

Mother Jones

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Following the explosive report that President Donald Trump leaned on then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn—and the explosive report that Trump’s transition team knew Flynn was under FBI investigation when Trump tapped him to be his top national security aide—an increasing number of congressional Republicans have begun to accept the need for full-scale investigations along with the appointment of Robert Mueller as the new special counsel to examine the Trump-Russia affair. But party leaders have not reached the point where they are willing to truly confront the scandal-plagued president. The GOP establishment can’t and won’t thoroughly challenge Trump over the assorted controversies brewing within his chaotic administration. To do so would risk a nuclear civil war that could blow their party to smithereens.

Ever since Trump moved into the White House, liberals (and others) have plaintively asked, why aren’t Republicans fiercely investigating Trump and his crew and seeking to hold them accountable for various instances of improbity? There’s been plenty to choose from: the Trump-Russia scandal, the smorgasbord of financial conflicts of interests involving Trump and his family members in and out of government, other possible ethics violations (including nepotistic hiring), the ever-widening Michael Flynn affair, and so on. In the wake of Trump’s firing of Comey, the guy in charge of a FBI investigation that could land on Trump’s doorstep, and the subsequent report (denied by the White House) that Trump pressured Comey on Flynn, some GOPers on Capitol Hill have gently called for probes into these matters. But by and large, Republican leaders have not dared to take on Trump vigorously. “The last thing I’m going to do is pre-judge anything,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday.

One reason Republicans have been reticent to criticize Trump is obvious: they care more about working with—that is, using—Trump to attain their most beloved policy desires: generous tax breaks for the wealthy, draconian budget cuts for government programs (including those that assist low- and middle-income Americans), and the repeal-and-replace-or-whatever of Obamacare. But there’s a related reason: if congressional Republicans were to challenge Trump in forceful fashion, it could destroy the GOP.

Pop quiz: who’s the most vengeful politician on the scene today? Yes, it’s Trump. As I reported before Election Day, Trump is completely obsessed with revenge. For years, Trump often said in paid speeches that a key to success is that you have to be a merciless SOB when dealing with foes. Here’s how he spelled it out: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” Another time, he elaborated:

One of the things you should do in terms of success: If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do, is so important…The reason you do, you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you. It’s not so much for the person, which does make you feel good, to be honest with you, I’ve done it many times. But other people watch and you know they say, “Well, let’s leave Trump alone,” or “Let’s leave this one,” or “Doris, let’s leave her alone. They fight too hard.” I say it, and it’s so important. You have to, you have to hit back. You have to hit back.

With the president showing signs of narcissism and paranoia—on Tuesday, he declared, “No politician in history…has been treated worse or more unfairly” than he has been—Republican politicians who dare to confront Trump can expect to be targeted and mowed down by Trump.

Prior to the recent Comey and Flynn controversies, many GOPers were scared of Trump. A House Democrat a few weeks ago told me of a conversation he had with a Republican colleague whom he was close to persuading to sponsor a piece of legislation that would likely be popular in the GOPer’s district but not fancied by the Trump White House. “I just can’t do it,” the Republican finally admitted to the Democrat. “He’ll come after me on Twitter.” The wrath of Trump was something this Republican feared deeply—just over a policy disagreement.

Imagine if Republicans squared off against Trump regarding a matter involving his integrity—or one that could pose an existential threat to his presidency. (Examining the Comey issues as possible acts of obstruction of justice could well lead to the question of impeachment.) Trump certainly would not consider such action kindly. And if he were going to screw them back 10 times as hard, what would that mean for congressional Republicans?

It would be quite improbable that a raging and revenge-seeking Trump would be able to collaborate with Republicans on legislative priorities. What would be more important for Trump: working with Republicans to achieve tax reform or extracting payback?

If the going gets tougher, Trump will insist on fealty from his fellow Republicans. Yet if some opt to join the forces of investigation, a dividing line would be created within the party: you’re with Trump, or you’re not. Of course, Trump and his minions would be keeping score. During the the first and chaotic effort of House Republicans to gut Obamacare, the Trump White House considered compiling an enemies list of those GOPers who opposed the Trump-backed bill. Republicans who threatened his presidency could expect much worse than being placed on a roster of unfriendlies.

This is far more than an inside-Washington affair. Trump’s base is the party’s base. Despite all the screw-ups, false assertions, broken promises, and flip-flops of Trump’s still young (but exhausting) presidency, he remains hugely popular among Republicans—84 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump in the latest Gallup poll—who presumably buy his “fake news” attacks on media reports that cast him as an autocratic, truth-challenged, and bumbling president. If Republicans on Capitol Hill turn against Trump they could well encounter the fury of their most dependable voters. In the fight for the soul of the party, could GOP leaders (Washington insiders!) best the demagogic Trump? Sen. Mitch McConnell or Rep. Paul Ryan would be no match for him. The idea of a President Pence would likely be little consolation for the base during a clash between Republicans and Trump.

The Republican establishment has already demonstrated that political calculations, not principles, are its driving force. And one calculation is easy to process: if the GOP breaks rank with Trump on any of these scandals, there will be no turning back. An irate (and irrational?) Trump would demand retribution. A base already suspicious of GOP insiders could become furious. Tax cuts and the like would be at risk. The party itself would be endangered. Of course, as is so often noted, if the Republicans start to feel Trump-related electoral pain—say, they lose one of the upcoming special House elections in GOP-leaning districts—they might reevaluate their situational loyalty to Trump. But the smart ones know the costs of such a course—even if necessary for survival—could be exceedingly high.

There is no good answer for congressional Republicans facing the dilemma of what to do about Trump. They long ago decided to lash themselves to a man with a decades-long record of dishonesty, arrogance, bullying, sleazy deal-making, and score-settling. There are no easy escape routes. No convenient off-ramps. No lifeboats on this ship. He made the bed, and they leaped into it. (Oh, Donald!) Now they’re screwed. The old cliché is that you don’t go after the king unless you can kill the king. But for Republicans, the situation is worse that that: it may not be possible for them to battle their king without razing their kingdom.

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There’s No Way Republicans Will Truly Confront Trump on His Scandals. It Would Destroy Their Party.

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Is Trump Looking For a New Press Secretary?

Mother Jones

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Seriously?

That’s from the San Jose Mercury News. There are only a few possibilities here:

  1. Sean Spicer has already resigned and is only staying on until a replacement is hired. So he knows all about this.
  2. Spicer doesn’t know Trump is planning to fire him and Guilfoyle was supposed to keep it confidential.
  3. Spicer doesn’t know but nobody in Trumpland gives a shit how he finds out he’s been fired.

It must be a real joy working in the White House these days.

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Is Trump Looking For a New Press Secretary?

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