2011 - %3, November

Gingrich (in 2007): Congress Must Impose an Individual Mandate

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 2:47 PM EST
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Newt Gingrich has had a tough time during this presidential campaign discussing the individual mandate. Republicans—especially tea partiers—tend to consider the individual mandate (which compels people to obtain health insurance) the worst part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. For them, it is a symbol of Obama's big-government, anti-freedom, socialistic ways. And Gingrich has been tap-dancing around this issue for months. Last May, he said he supported "some requirement" to "have insurance," but quickly afterward issued a campaign video declaring he was "completely opposed to the Obamacare mandate on individuals." In a recent debate, he acknowledged that he had endorsed the individual mandate in the early 1990s, but claimed he had done so only as a tactical maneuver in opposition to Hillary Clinton's health care proposal at the time. The clear implication: that was then, now I don't. But yesterday, I reported that his for-profit health policy outfit, the Center for Health Transformation, has for years pushed a health care plan that would, according to the group's website, "require that anyone who earms more than $50,000 a year must purchase health insurance or post a bond." In other words, an individual mandate.

Gingrich's campaign did not respond to a request for an explanation. I suppose he could say that he did not agree with all the policies of his own center or that the mandate envisioned by this proposal would be a state-imposed obligation, not a federally imposed one (such as the "Obamacare mandate" Gingrich so fervently opposes). But a 2007 column he posted on the Center's website affords him no wiggle room whatsoever. In that article, Gingrich wrote,

In order to make coverage more accessible, Congress must do more, including passing legislation to: establish a national health insurance marketplace by giving individuals the freedom to shop for insurance plans across state lines; provide low-income families with $1,000 in direct contributions to a health savings account, along with a $2,000 advanced tax credit to purchase an HSA-eligible high-deductible health plan; make premiums for these plans tax deductible; provide tax rebates to small businesses that contribute to their employees’ HSAs; extend and expand grant funding to high-risk pools across the country; and require anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year to purchase health insurance or post a bond. [Emphasis added.]

My, my. Gingrich, under his own byline, was calling for Congress to impose an "Obamacare"-like federal mandate on individuals throughout the land. There's no way he can talk—or even lie—himself out of this.

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The Economy is Looking Up! (Maybe)

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 1:38 PM EST

Karl Smith has been predicting for a while that pent-up demand for cars and housing will start to drive economic recovery in the very near future. Today, he notes that auto sales are starting to rebound, apartment construction is up smartly, and private forecasters are starting to project nice GDP gains in the fourth quarter:

As long as Europe doesn’t destroy the world — and it very well may — I expect Multi-Family starts to be posting record highs by the end of 2012.

And I mean record, never before in American history will construction be started on so many apartment complex units.

I continue to think that debt constraints are going to keep growth reined in for a while, and that both Europe and China might have serious effects on the U.S. economy in the near term. Still, there's also reason for optimism, and I think Karl makes about as good a case as anyone for it.

Prop 8 Gets Its Day in Court

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 1:06 PM EST

Last year, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, a California initiative banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. The initiative's backers wanted to appeal the decision, but neither California's governor nor its attorney general was willing to defend it. With no one to defend it, Walker's ruling would have stood by default and same-sex marriage would have been legal in California.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Prop 8's backers could defend the initiative if the state wouldn't:

Thursday's unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, strongly affirmed that ballot sponsors may represent California in defending initiatives when elected officials fail to do so...."Neither the Governor, the Attorney General, nor any other executive or legislative official has the authority to veto or invalidate an initiative measure that has been approved by the voters," Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.

Legal scholars said the state high court's decision was so adamant that the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide marriage rights as early as 2013, was unlikely to limit its ruling to the narrow and technical issue of "standing," a legal term for the right to go to court.

It feels more than usually loathsome to take sides with the Prop 8 folks here, but this is a good decision. It would be a travesty if a successful ballot measure could be overturned by a single district court judge and then, by virtue of a procedural formality, stay overturned simply because state officials declined to defend one of their own laws. If the tables were turned, I'd be blisteringly outraged by shenanigans like this.

Like it or not, Prop 8 was passed legally and properly. If it's overturned, it should be overturned on its merits — as Walker's decision did — not thanks to a legal technicality. I hope they lose, but Prop 8's backers deserve their day in court.

Arizona Supreme Court Reinstates Redistricting Chair

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 12:15 PM EST
Gov. Jan Brewer

The Arizona Supreme Court issued a stern rebuke to Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday, reinstating the chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) that Brewer tried to oust earlier this month, the Arizona Republic reports.

In 2000, Arizonans voted to create a non-partisan commission to run the redistricting process. States re-draw their district lines once every decade to reflect changes in population, drawing on data from the latest US Census. But, in many states, if one party controls the state's legislature, as well as the governorship, it can push through an electoral map that favors its interests for the coming decade. Because so much is at stake, redistricting fights frequently devolve into bitter, partisan warfare (like in Texas in 2003, when Republicans pushed through a GOP-friendly plan even though it was a non-Census year)—something that voters in Arizona hoped to change by creating the IRC. 

But earlier this month, Brewer and state Republicans forcibly removed Colleen Mathis, the independent chair of the five-member commission. Brewer accused Mathis of drawing a Democrat-friendly map. She also alleged that Mathis violated the state's open meetings law by negotiating a backroom deal with a map-making firm with ties to the Democratic Party.

On Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments from the IRC's attorneys challenging Mathis' removal. They found that Brewer's reasons for the ejection failed to demonstrate "substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office." The court also sent a strong message to Brewer: that it holds the last word when it comes to removing public officials from office. 

In her response to the court, Brewer argued that reinstating Mathis showed that the court had "averted its eyes from the Commission's misdeeds," and that her "actions to meet in secret, arrange critical votes in advance of meetings and twist the words and spirit of the Constitution have been forgiven—if not endorsed outright... The clearest victim in this matter is a redistricting process that voters intended to be honest, impartial and transparent. In the coming days, I'll be considering my options as to how best to proceed."

One option: presenting a case to the court that more specifically spells out her argument for removing Mathis. For Brewer, this isn't over yet. 

Quantum Mechanics Gets Even Weirder. Or Maybe Less Weird.

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 12:11 PM EST

I don't know if this is firm enough to be worth blogging about, but even if it's not, it'll be interesting to hear physicists cautioning us in comments not to go overboard about what this means. So here it is: three physicists have produced a theorem implying that the quantum wavefunction is not merely a mathematical abstraction that tells us the probability of subatomic particles being in certain locations and having certain properties. The Copenhagen interpretation, they say, is wrong. The wavefunction is an actual physical thing:

“I don't like to sound hyperbolic, but I think the word 'seismic' is likely to apply to this paper,” says Antony Valentini, a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum foundations at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Valentini believes that this result may be the most important general theorem relating to the foundations of quantum mechanics since Bell’s theorem, the 1964 result in which Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell proved that if quantum mechanics describes real entities, it has to include mysterious “action at a distance”.

Action at a distance occurs when pairs of quantum particles interact in such a way that they become entangled. But the new paper, by a trio of physicists led by Matthew Pusey at Imperial College London, presents a theorem showing that if a quantum wavefunction were purely a statistical tool, then even quantum states that are unconnected across space and time would be able to communicate with each other. As that seems very unlikely to be true, the researchers conclude that the wavefunction must be physically real after all.

....Their theorem effectively says that individual quantum systems must “know” exactly what state they have been prepared in, or the results of measurements on them would lead to results at odds with quantum mechanics. They declined to comment while their preprint is undergoing the journal-submission process, but say in their paper that their finding is similar to the notion that an individual coin being flipped in a biased way — for example, so that it comes up 'heads' six out of ten times — has the intrinsic, physical property of being biased, in contrast to the idea that the bias is simply a statistical property of many coin-flip outcomes.

So if this is true, what does it mean? In my vague and probably confused understanding of things, I always understood that the wavefunction of Bell's Theorem traveled faster than light. However, that was OK since it wasn't a physical thing and didn't convey any information. But if it's a physical thing, even a massless physical thing, how can that be?

Or does this result mean that entanglement doesn't really operate over long distances in the first place, that particles know their own states all along and don't react to observations of their entangled twin? Help!

In other, probably unrelated news, those Italian researchers who say that neutrinos travel faster than light have doubled down. They now claim to have reproduced their initial results.

The 2-Year Window

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 7:00 AM EST

In The New Republic this week, Jon Cohn has an eye-opening piece, "The Two Year Window," about advances in the science of early childhood development. It opens with a description of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a study that removed infants from warehouse-style orphanages in Romania and adopted them out:

      It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country's population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn't support.... The new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime's fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. [Neuroscientist Charles Nelson] prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages.

…Prior to the project, investigators had observed that the orphans had a high frequency of serious developmental problems, from diminished IQs to extreme difficulty forming emotional attachments. Meanwhile, imaging and other tests revealed that some of the orphans had reduced activity in their brains. The Bucharest project confirmed that these findings were more than random observations. It also uncovered a striking pattern: Orphans who went to foster homes before their second birthdays often recovered some of their abilities. Those who went to foster homes after that point rarely did.

This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages....It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.

…"The concept of disrupting brain circuitry is much more compelling than the concept that poverty is bad for your health," says Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. "It gives us a basis for developing new ideas, for going into policy areas, given what we know, and saying here are some new strategies worth trying."

What's new here isn't really the idea that experiences in early childhood are important. In fact, in the era following the Second World War, the idea that habits established early in life are permanent was, if anything, belabored too much. "If mothers did not nurture their infants properly," Jerome Kagan wrote in 1999, criticizing this widespread belief, "their children would be vulnerable to a dull mind, a wild spirit, and a downward spiral…This view of development rests on the assumption that every experience produces a permanent physical change somewhere in the central nervous system, and therefore the earliest experiences provide the scaffolding for the child's future thought and behavior."

What Kagan was criticizing, though, was primarily the idea that particular styles of parenting were necessary to produce well-adjusted children. Generally speaking, that turns out not to be true: You don't need to play Mozart to your baby or jump through hoops to make sure she's properly "attached." Most middle-class kids turn out okay even though they're exposed to a wide variety of parenting styles.

But Cohn's piece is about something different: It's about kids whose infancy is, to put it bluntly, fairly appalling. And not just in warehouses in Bucharest. Diana Rauner visited child care facilities in Chicago while she was working on her doctoral dissertation and "described facilities where infants were strapped in car seats, 'watching The Lion King all day,' while the older kids were 'circling the room almost like sharks' and throwing things at the infants, because they had nothing else to do." That kind of environment, it turns out, can cause permanent cognitive damage, sometimes at a biological level, and it's probably a lot more common than you think.

You can see more of the evidence for the importance of early childhood in the chart on the right, which I posted earlier this year. It comes from James Heckman, probably the preeminent researcher in this area, and it shows average achievement test scores for different classes of children. All show the exact same dynamic: Gaps show up as early as age three and persist pretty much forever. Some of this is due to genetic differences, but not all of it. It's also due to differences in children's early environments. The lesson is simple: If you want to have a real impact on how kids do in school, you have to get to them early.

But even this understates the benefit of intensive early interventions. The payoff, in general, doesn't come in higher test scores, anyway. A large and growing body of research suggests that it comes in other behaviors: for example, the ability to delay gratification, the ability to hold a job, the ability to control your temper, and the ability to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

The problem, of course, is that early intervention costs money. Lots of money. According to Cohn, we currently spend about $11,000 per student in K-12 and about $4,000 per child under the age of four. That's crazy. But if we wanted to equalize that spending, how could we do it? One option is just to raise more money. But if we spent $11,000 for every child under the age of four, that would come to over $100 billion per year in new spending. There's no way that's going to happen.

Another option would be to take the pot of money we already spend and equalize it: spend about $9,000 per child all the way from ages 1-18. Unfortunately, this is hardly any more likely: If we tried to reduce the amount we spend on K-12, teachers unions would go ballistic, ed reformers would go ballistic, and suburban parents would go ballistic. If I were a benevolent dictator, I'd do it anyway, because it would almost certainly be a far better use of our existing money. But I'm not, am I?

Still, this is an area that cuts across party lines and deserves far more attention than it gets. The evidence has been mounting for a long time that intensive early interventions produce a huge bang for the buck, far more than what we spend in primary and secondary schools. The problem is that the bucks have to be spent now, and the bang doesn't arrive for another decade or two. Where's Bill Gates when you need him?

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 18, 2011

Fri Nov. 18, 2011 6:57 AM EST

Army Spc. James Elliot, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, observes a target through his weapon's optic scope while taking part in a training mission at the National Training Centerin Fort Irwin, Calif., Nov. 11. Photo by the US Army.

Tracking Journalists Arrested at Occupy Protests

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 6:30 AM EST

Josh Stearns of media-reform group Free Press has been tracking journalist arrests at Occupy protests since September (see his complete list below). He constantly scans Twitter for mentions of latest arrests, tries to verify by contacting publications affiliated with the journalists in question, and updates their status on the list he maintains at Storify, the social-media curation site.

Unlike the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, where riot police ripped press credentials off journalists' necks and tampered with recording equipment, Stearns doesn't believe there's an intentional effort by law enforcement officials to target journalists covering Occupy protests. "Journalists are just getting swept up as part of the general 'nuisance,'" he says, "and cops are finding it easier to sweep house and get the details later." And in the age of smartphone reporting, Twitter, and livestream video, it's hard to tell who's a credentialed journalist and who isn't—or what that means for journalism.

"These arrests are a symptom of a larger debate about how we understand the First Amendment in a digital age, as the institutions that traditionally embodied those freedoms shift and change," Stearns writes on his blog. "As more and more of our speech moves online and over mobile networks, and as our press is distributed across vast human and technological networks, we need to contend with new kinds of First Amendment issues."

Read more of his thoughts here, and send tips and tweets on journalist arrests to @jcstearns.

Miscellaneous Links

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 1:51 AM EST

Some miscellaneous reading that I didn't get around to blogging about today:

Eli Lake writes that Israel is gearing up for a strike on Iran's nuclear program. "Israel has been assembling a multibillion-dollar array of high-tech weapons that would allow it to jam, blind, and deafen Tehran's defenses in the case of a pre-emptive aerial strike....Israel also likely would exploit a vulnerability that U.S. officials detected two years ago in Iran's big-city electric grids, which are not “air-gapped”—meaning they are connected to the Internet and therefore vulnerable to a Stuxnet-style cyberattack—officials say."

The Crystal Cathedral has been sold in bankruptcy to the Diocese of Orange. It will become a countywide cathedral for the Catholic church in Orange County, replacing their current home, St. Callistus.

Ramesh Ponnuru debunks the idea that Republicans lost Congress in 2006 because they had abandoned true conservatism by overspending: "If Republican overspending drove voters away, they should have lost support first among conservatives. But there was no sign of a demoralized base in 2006....It was among independent voters that Republicans got slaughtered." The real problem, he says, is that "Republicans had nothing to say about wage stagnation then and are saying nothing about it now. The real cost of Republicans’ fixation on ideological purity is that it distracts them from their real problems, and the nation’s."

David Corn reports that Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation supports an individual mandate as part of their plan for healthcare reform. Among other things, their proposal would "Require that anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year must purchase health insurance or post a bond." This isn't from last month or last year. It's from today.

Matt Taibbi wants to know why a woman who fraudulently applied for food stamps got three years in jail while Wall Street bigshots have all walked free. "Compare this court decision to the fraud settlements on Wall Street....[Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank] have been repeatedly dragged into court for fraud, and not one individual defendant has ever been forced to give back anything like a significant portion of his ill-gotten gains. The closest we've come is in a fraud case involving Citi, in which a pair of executives, Gary Crittenden and Arthur Tildesley, were fined the token amounts of $100,000 and $80,000, respectively, for lying to shareholders about the extent of Citi’s debt. Neither man was forced to admit to intentional fraud. Both got to keep their jobs."

It's the Aggregate Demand, Stupid

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 10:33 PM EST

How does a decline in consumer demand affect different geographic regions? Well, suppose that consumer demand falls heavily in Orange County, where I live. You'd naturally expect to see a large employment drop in industries that are stuck in Orange County and depend solely on Orange Country residents for their business. Local accounting firms, for example. Schools. Restaurants. Construction companies.

But what about industries that sell their stuff all over the country? Pharmaceuticals, say, or high tech or clothing. In Orange County, that would include companies like Allergan, Western Digital, Broadcom, and Quiksilver. You'd expect employment at these companies to react not so much to Orange County, but to the country as a whole. So even if Orange County is doing poorly, these companies might continue to do well as long as the country is doing well.

The first category is called the non-tradable sector. The second is called the tradable sector. So if weak consumer demand is at the core of our economic problems, here's what you'd expect to see:

  • Employment in the non-tradable sector would be worse in counties that are the most depressed.
  • Employment in the tradable sector would be about the same everywhere, and would depend on how the country as a whole is doing.

So is this how things look? Economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi took a look at tradable and non-tradable employment in all large counties in the United States and plotted it against the level of debt in each county. If consumer demand is responsible for our sluggish economy, you'd expect counties with high debt loads to have employment declines in the non-tradable sectors, but to see no real differences in the tradable sector. And that's exactly what they found:

From the paper:

In order to remove any direct effect of the residential housing boom and bust, we explicitly remove construction or any other real-estate related sector from the non-tradable definition.

Consistent with the aggregate demand channel, job losses in the non-tradable sector from 2007 to 2009 were significantly higher in high leverage counties that experienced sharp demand declines. In particular, a one standard deviation increase in the 2006 debt to income ratio of a county is associated with a 3 percentage point drop in non-tradable employment during this time period, which is 2/5 a standard deviation. Moreover, the large decline in employment in the tradable sector is completely uncorrelated with 2006 debt to income – exactly as predicted by the aggregate demand channel.

This comes via Paul Krugman, who says this paper demonstrates that the data doesn't really fit a structural unemployment story, but instead fits a story in which spending is just too low. "The empirical evidence," he says, "more and more, exhibits a clear Keynesian bias."

For related work from Mian and Sufi on the effect of household debt on unemployment, see this post from earlier in the year.