Is the economy actually booming?

Plus, a question about the QAnon conspiracy.

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Today’s read: 9 minutes.

The economy is celebrated as the year ends, catching up on what you missed yesterday, a question about the QAnon conspiracy and a story about religious groups providing health insurance.

Photo: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA

At the top.

Julián Castro has dropped out of the presidential race. Castro was the former housing secretary under President Barack Obama and former mayor of San Antonio. He was also the only Latino candidate in the race. Though Castro never got traction, many liberals expressed disappointment that his campaign came to a premature end. You can read more here.


Catching up.

The new year begins with the most unrest abroad of any time during President Trump’s first term in office:

  • Just days after storming the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, several hundred Iranian-backed militiamen packed up their things and left. As more information came in, a consensus grew that these were no protesters: it was in fact an Iranian operation. While the “demonstrators” are gone, the damage was done. Trump sent hundreds of new U.S. forces to the Middle East, the same exact troops who were deployed after the Benghazi attack in 2012. Reality: the people behind the riots wanted U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Instead, they just sparked an increase in troop presence in the region while demonstrating momentous tension between Iran, Iraq and the U.S. Click.

  • North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un began the new year by making threats. He said North Korea will no longer commit to reducing its nuclear arsenal and wants to negotiate new terms, adding that he’s planning to reveal a new strategic weapon “in the near future.” Trump responded by praising the murderous leader. "Look, he likes me, I like him, we get along. He's representing his country. I'm representing my country. We have to do what we have to do. But he did sign a contract, he did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization, and it was signed.” Reality: North Korea has been signing and breaking denuclearization deals for decades, and this is why experts warned not to take Trump seriously when he promised the threat was over and we could all “sleep at night” last year. Click.

  • Speaking of weapons, Russia is at it as well. Just two days after Christmas, Vladimir Putin said he had deployed a hypersonic weapon that flies at superfast speeds (some say it’s “Mach 27”) that can evade American missile defense systems. U.S. officials said they have little doubt the threat is real, confirming Russia has a weapon that can travel at speeds faster than 3,800 miles per hour. Other experts on the region think the news is meant to spur new diplomatic talks on arms treaties, some of which expire in 2021. Reality: news of the weapon seems more likely to renew the nuclear arms races of the past than solve any diplomatic friction over weapons treaties. Click.


What D.C. is talking about.

The economy. As 2019 comes to a close, everyone is looking back on the last year in politics. One of the big early themes coming out of the year in review is how strong the economy has been — and how big the markets have gone. As any political expert will tell you, few things (historically) drive voter decisions at the ballot like the economy. In that respect, President Trump has a lot of good news to harp on: The unemployment rate is 3.5%, the country is in its 11th straight year of employment gains, and job numbers continue to exceed expectations. Of particular note is the stock market, which closed out its best year in two decades. As one analyst put it while speaking to The Wall Street Journal, the economy’s success has been so broad in the market that investing is simple as ever. “It’s dartboard technology,” he said. “Just throw a dart.”


What the right is saying.

This is Trump’s firewall. For all the talk about 2020, impeachment, Trump’s alleged incompetence as president and the dire warnings about his time in office, the economy will preserve his presidency. How could an American voter cast a ballot against someone overseeing historically low unemployment and historically high stock gains? GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is telling voters that “millions of Americans are better off because of Donald Trump’s America First agenda.” Wages are climbing at about a 3.7% annual pace after falling to 2.5% during the final years of Obama’s presidency. Unemployment rates are at all-time lows for many minorities and anyone who invested in the market after Trump was elected is sitting pretty today. Not just that, but a good market means healthy 401ks and retirement plans for folks who are employed and saving up money. As the old saying goes, “it’s the economy, stupid,” and Democrats will have a tough time making voters care about Ukraine dealings or climate change when they’ve got extra money in the bank.


What the left is saying.

Who is this economy really for? And how much of it is Trump’s doing? If you zoom out on the economy, what you really see is a continuation of Obama’s legacy. Unemployment reduction, stock gains and wage growth started during his time in office and Trump just inherited those trends. Not only that, but Obama turned around a post-recession economy that was bleeding jobs while Trump inherited a healthy economy Democrats helped create. Then there’s the question of the wealth gap. Republicans’ tax cuts disproportionately helped the wealthy, have not led to the promised “re-investment” in companies and only worsened inequality in America. And while it’s true wages are growing, they aren’t moving fast enough to cover the increased cost of living or health care. As Pete Buttigieg recently put it at a campaign event in Iowa: “It’s nice to see that the Dow Jones is doing well… But more and more Americans find that we’re fighting like hell just to hold onto what we’ve got.” On top of all this, Trump’s “economic boom” has only happened while he’s ballooned the U.S. deficit (that’s the amount of money the government spends vs. what it brings in via taxes). The U.S. debt surpassed $22 trillion and Trump has added more than $2 trillion of debt since taking office, a shocking reality for a Republican president when you consider the decades of warnings conservatives have made about the debt.


My take.

If you read this newsletter, you know that I consider our economic indicators one of the greatest failures of American politics. GDP growth, stock market gains and unemployment rates are all critical indicators worth considering in any understanding of how Americans are doing. I have money in the stock market. I have retirement savings. I’d love to buy a home one day. Of course, I care about these broader economic numbers. But they also fail to capture what life is like for your average Americans.

While unemployment rates are at an all-time low and the stock market is having a historically good year, almost half of all American workers are in low wage jobs, where median annual wages are $18,000 a year. $18,000! There are very few places left in America where someone making $18,000 a year can pay rent, own a 20-year-old car and eat a healthy meal on a regular basis. And what if those people have a medical emergency? Or need to buy a new car? Or want to retire? It’s damn near impossible. Many millions of those people are living below what’s considered a living wage despite having more than one job. So while the economy is “cooking” by traditional metrics, this reality is what makes Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren's message resonate.

That’s not to say there aren’t good signs for low-income workers, too. A strong case for the Trump economy was made in The Washington Times: good news is abound for women, farmers, minorities and the 60 percent of Americans who say they are happy or very happy with their jobs. The 25% lowest-paid Americans enjoyed a 4.5% income boost in November, outpacing the 2.9% gain the highest-paid workers in America saw. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, and Trump can make a strong case things are headed in the right direction.

My caution to you: presidents love taking credit for the economy, but it’s unclear what kind of impact they really have. Just as Trump’s three years of growth could keep his presidency afloat, there continue to be warning signs that a 2020 recession is imminent. That recession could come right before or just after Trump is re-elected or leaves office, but history would indicate that it’s going to come eventually. What we really need is a middle class that can survive another economic downturn, and right now I’m not convinced we have one.


Bye bye.

The Trump administration is expected to announce a ban on mint, fruit and dessert flavored e-cigarette cartridges this week. It will continue to allow menthol and tobacco flavors on the market. The announcement is sure to cause a lot of political division. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed a desire to address the teen vaping “epidemic,” but plenty of conservatives view this as a big gov overreach. Trump says it’s a compromise. “We have to protect our families,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry. ... It’s become a very big industry. We’re going to take care of the industry.” Click.


Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Submitting a question is easy. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.

Earlier this week, I sent off a tweet about a new Congressional candidate from “QAnon” who is running for office in Oregon. I called it “terrifying.”

That prompted this reader question:

Q: Can you explain what this means? What's QAnon and why is it terrifying? I genuinely know nothing about it.

- David, Pittsburgh, PA

Tangle: If you don’t know anything about QAnon, consider yourself lucky. Unfortunately for all of my Tangle readers, I am probably about to stress you out or send you down a hellish rabbit hole you’ll be desperate to emerge from in approximately three minutes.

The crux of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that a global cabal of elites, embedded in the Democratic party, Hollywood, intelligence agencies and global leadership positions across the planet are responsible for every bad thing. But there is a particular and prominent focus on the sexual exploitation of children. QAnon believers think that high-profile liberal politicians and many of your favorite actors and actresses are running a giant, complex, insidious child sex ring that spans the globe. As the conspiracy theory goes, the military courted President Trump to run for office and destroy this cabal and he is sitting on thousands of sealed indictments that will be released at some point during his presidency. Many QAnon believers think Trump will have Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others executed at Guantanamo Bay before he leaves office, all for their horrid crimes against children.

“Q” is an anonymous person who started the conspiracy theories with a series of cryptic posts on the website 4Chan, which is a Reddit-like website for right-wing extremism that masquerades as a home for free speech. Q, who claims to have some high-level security clearance, posts bizarre poems that his supporters call “breadcrumbs” and are meant to lead them to a certain truth about what’s really happening inside our government. The name QAnon refers to the fact that Q is anonymous, as are many of his supporters and believers, who call themselves Anons.

QAnons have come to believe that Trump’s No. 1 enemy is this group of high profile Democrats who are also pedophiles. They will go to great lengths, including leveraging the deep state intelligence agencies, to destroy Trump. Trump, in his own way, has elevated these conspiracy theories by re-tweeting or sharing dozens of posts on Twitter from QAnons. My best guess is Trump believes he’s just sharing supporters’ unbridled love for him, but the reality is quite dangerous: the FBI considers QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and several people have already died as a result of the conspiracies. Will Sommer, The Daily Best internet reporter who is perhaps the foremost expert on the group, reported that “two QAnon believers have been charged with murders that appear to be motivated by their beliefs in the conspiracy theory, including the slaying of a Mafia boss, while others have committed vandalism or even shut down a bridge with an armored truck.” Other QAnon believers who fell for the Pizzagate conspiracy theory “fired shots and tried to burn down a Washington pizzeria,” Sommer reported.

Trump’s elevation of the conspiracy theory has been extremely dangerous because it has emboldened Q supporters, who now believe Trump is in on the whole thing. They’ve even posted videos that purport to show Trump drawing “Q” symbols with his hands during media appearances. His campaign hasn’t done much to tamp down the speculation that he is a Q believer. Jessie Jane Duff, a Trump campaign official, came close. She tweeted, “I know we on the campaign don’t support Q and its all bizarre nonsense for ppl who need to believe something. Q is so absurd, why should the President acknowledge it when NO ONE cares? It isn’t a campaign issue. it isn’t an economic issue. It’s an issue for ppl who wish they were in the know based upon irrelevant or anonymous sources on irrelevant web sites.” But when her account was inundated with angry QAnon responses, she cowered and deleted her tweets. In the meantime, Trump has continued retweeting dozens of accounts that have also shared QAnon conspiracy theories.

Amidst all this, QAnon believers have also begun running for office. Hence my tweet. Jo Rae Perkins is running for Congress in Oregon and shared a post purporting that Q and Donald Trump were coordinating together.

It’s not just D-list politicians, either. Former pro baseball pitcher Curt Schilling and actress Roseanne Barr have endorsed the theory, too.

But because Q’s predictions are so vague and endlessly stupid, his supporters often feel vindicated. For instance, one Q supporter predicted that Trump would use the words “tip-top” in his State of the Union address, and said it’d be proof he was signaling to the group that he supported them. Trump didn’t, but three months later he said “tip-top” during the Easter egg hunt at the White House. QAnons immediately jumped on this as positive proof of Q’s power. This is usually how it goes: Q or Q’s supporters make a broad, bizarre prediction that anyone who follows politics could make, it either hits or doesn’t, and the QAnons come away feeling stronger belief regardless. It’s mind-boggling and scary how quick it has spread.

In November, NBC News reported that at least four candidates for Congress have shared QAnon conspiracy theories. Perkins would appear to make five. And all of this is why I tweeted that news of her candidacy was “terrifying.”


A story that matters.

More than one million Americans have joined Christian health cost-sharing ministries as a substitute for health insurance. The groups work similar to health insurance: folks pay monthly fees to be a member, and if something happens the group is expected to help them pay for their medical bills. But the groups come with a major catch: they aren’t legally obligated to pay off medical claims. A group profiled by The New York Times capped coverage for one patient at $250,000, far less than the patient would need after suffering a brain aneurysm. Via NYT:

“Just trust God,” the nonprofit group, Samaritan Ministries, in Peoria, Ill., said in a statement about its coverage, and advises its members that “there is no coverage, no guarantee of payment.”

Now, state regulators are taking a closer look at the groups, which are meant exclusively for people “living a Christian lifestyle” and have begun using aggressive marketing techniques to bring in more customers. Regulators are starting to warn that the plans are deceptively posing as insurance coverage when they are not. The story is a sign of how desperate some folks are for insurance and also calls into question the ethics of some of these religious providers. Click.


Numbers.

  • 17. The confirmed number of people who have died in apocalyptic wildfires in Australia.

  • 500 million. The estimated number of animals who have died in the fires in Australia.

  • $34.5 million. The amount of money Bernie Sanders raised in the final three months of 2019, the strongest quarter of any Democratic candidate announced this year.

  • 300,000. The estimated number of new donors who gave to Sanders in the last quarter, according to his campaign.

  • $46 million. The amount of money Trump’s campaign team raised in the same time period, not including money brought in by the RNC.

  • $16.5 million. The final quarter campaign haul of Andrew Yang, a surprising sum that is the underdog candidate’s biggest quarter yet.


Have a nice day.

The FDA just approved the use of Lynparza, a drug designed to combat ovarian and breast cancer, to treat pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is the third largest cause of death from cancer and is often not detected early enough for positive treatment outcomes. Nearly 46,000 Americans die of pancreatic cancer every year. The approval marks a major milestone for treatment after tests of the drug found it improved outcomes for those against patients taking a placebo. The news comes just days after Democratic Congressman John Lewis announced he’d been diagnosed with the disease. Click.


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