2012 - %3, April

The Perils and Pitfalls of Statistical Analysis

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

This is mostly in the pointless frivolity category, but the chart below from Matt Glassman shows total annual volume of email received by Congress since 1996. Matt has a few observations about what this all means, which you should read, but what I'm curious about is the huge drop in 2008-09. What happened? Matt says it's a technical artifact: "The large peak in 2007 and the drop-off following it are almost certainly due to the explosion of more intelligent spam and the corresponding adoption of powerful new and improved spam filters in both chambers that year."

If that's true — and corroboration would be welcome from anyone with working knowledge of this stuff — it's an object lesson in statistical analysis. Land mines are everywhere! If you saw this chart and concluded, say, that the financial crisis had somehow wiped out people's desire to email their congresscritters, and then built an elaborate theory around that guess, you'd be totally wrong. It would be a perfectly reasonable theory, but it would be wrong. In reality, nothing interesting happened at all. Caveat emptor.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 4, 2012

Wed Apr. 4, 2012 10:39 AM EDT

US Army Spc. Shawnte Rollins (right), a native of Elkhart, Ind., and part of the female engagement team, and Afghan National Security soldiers collect information from motorists passing through a temporary control point set up at the Chenigai Pass in Bak district, March 30, 2012. Delaware Company is part of the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, Task Force Blue Geronimo. Photo by the US Army.

AP Fact-Check of Obama Speech Sort of Defeats Point of Fact-Checking

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 10:03 AM EDT
President Barack Obama reads the AP's fact-check of his most recent speech with mounting frustration.

President Obama delivered a fiery (as we journalists like to call such things) speech to a gathering of newspapers editors in Washington on Tuesday, chiding Mitt Romney for using words like "marvelous" and knocking GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan as "social darwinism." It was, by most accounts, a sign of what's to come from the campaign over the next seven months. Let's hope this fact-check of the speech from the Associated Press isn't also a harbinger of the future. ("It's not even 10 A.M. and we already have a 'worst of the day' winner," tweets Pema Levy.) The problem with the piece, by the normally solid Calvin Woodward, is that it doesn't really check any facts (inflated jobs figures, spending increases, that kind of thing). Instead, it suffers from a massive glut of false equivalence. For instance:

  • "Obama ignored realities in his own Democratic ranks. For one, it was opposition from coal-state Democrats that sank cap-and-trade legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions, not just from those arch-conservative Republicans."

This is somewhat true. In a campaign ad, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin actually shot a piece of cap-and-trade legislation to demonstrate how much he hated the idea of a market for carbon credits. (He really dislikes them!) But although a small fraction of Senate Democrats opposed cap-and-trade, the entire Republican caucus opposed it. As Ryan Lizza explained, there are complicated process-related explanations for why climate legislation failed, but on a sheer mathematical level, Republicans blocked it.

The piece continues:

  • "For another, if Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it's also true that Obama has moved to the left. He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind."

But that wasn't actually a shift to the left. As a candidate, Obama campaigned on a public option. Progressives were devastated when it was nixed from the Affordable Care Act—to the extent that some refused to support the final bill. Instead, Obama went with the market-driven approach favored by the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Why? Well, in part because Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley suggested there would be "broad bi-partisan support" for such a solution. Can you really knock someone for moving to the left when they started off on the left and ended up where the center used to be?

The fact-check goes on to rebuke Obama for accusing Republicans of wanting to toss out lots of economic regulations (something Republicans want to do) by pointing out that Romney himself doesn't want to literally eliminate every federal regulation—only a lot of them, including the Dodd–Frank Wall Street reform package, which was designed to prevent a repeat of the practices that led to the 2008 crash. But Obama didn't actually say Romney wanted to eliminate all federal regulations—only a lot of them.

A sense of nuance is helpful when writing about Washington politics—and nuance, incidentally, is something campaign speeches generally lack. But fact-checks are for objective facts, not subjective arguments about what does and doesn't constitute excessive deregulation. Pieces like this sort of defeat the point.

BPA in Your Food? The FDA's Still Okay With That.

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Bisphenol A, a controversial chemical used in the lining of nearly all cans used by the food and beverage industry, got a reprieve from the government last week. Responding to a court order to decide on the Natural Resources Defense Council's petition to ban the stuff on the grounds that it causes harm even in tiny doses, the Food and Drug Administration rejected the petition and upheld its approval of BPA.

That's good news for some of the globe's biggest chemical companies. According to Bloomberg News, the global BPA market is worth about $8 billion, with about a quarter of total production going into cans. (The rest goes into polycarbonate plastics, which end up in everything from water bottles to DVDs.) Bloomberg adds that the three biggest suppliers of BPA to the American market are the chemical/steel giant Saudi Basic Industries Corp.—which is 70-percent-owned by the Saudi government—the German chemical giant Bayer, and Dow, its US rival. Globally, according to the US Department of Agriculture, Bayer and Dow produce "the bulk" of BPA.

Review: "High," by Screaming Females

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 5

"High"

From Screaming Females' Ugly

DON GIOVANNI

Liner notes: Diminutive Marissa Paternoster delivers an uncanny impersonation of a human tornado, unleashing scorching punk-metal guitar riffs as she snarls, "I don't get high!"

Behind the music: An earlier incarnation of the New Brunswick, New Jersey, band was called Surgery on TV. Screaming Females began in 2005, helping to spawn a thriving DIY scene.

Check it out if you like: Fiery women rockers like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.

Spain Now on Deck in European Demolition Derby

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 1:03 AM EDT

For the last year or two, the standard MO in Europe has been pretty straightforward: a crisis of some kind every five or six months, followed by a solution that everyone claims will finally fix things, followed by yet another crisis. It's about time for the next one, and Spain appears to be the most likely source this time around:

Spain has set off further alarm bells among bond investors and its crisis-hit eurozone neighbours by conceding that its debts will balloon this year to their highest level for two decades....Despite announcing its most austere budget for more than 30 years last week, Spain's government admitted on Tuesday that the debt-to-GDP ratio will jump to 79.8% in 2012 from 68.5% last year.

....Nerves around Spain's creditworthiness — whose economy is twice the size of that of Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined — had settled somewhat since the depths of the eurozone debt crisis last year. But recent days have brought renewed fears in financial markets and among fellow eurozone members that Spain could be the biggest threat to their future.

Yep, that's a shocker. Spain's most austere budget in three decades has produced a terrible economy, which in turn is producing even bigger deficits. Who could have predicted it?

As usual, it's not as if there are any easy solutions here, so I suppose excessive snark isn't really justified. Still, it's not as if no one saw this coming. And it's inevitable that these crises will continue popping up every few months until, one way or another, Europe solves its fundamental problems. That still doesn't seem to be anywhere on the horizon. In the meantime, keep your seatbelts fastened.

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Corn on MSNBC: Obama Goes After the Ryan Budget

Tue Apr. 3, 2012 9:04 PM EDT

David Corn joined host Al Sharpton on MSNBC's Politics Nation to discuss President Obama's recent criticism of Paul Ryan's budget, what Romney's support of the budget means for his candidacy, and how the budget would hurt America's poor.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Fifth Circuit Judges Now In Full Wingnut Mode

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 7:04 PM EDT

This is beyond bizarre. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court is hearing a challenge to Obamacare, but when a Justice Department lawyer began arguments this morning she was stopped short:

Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith immediately interrupted, asking if DOJ agreed that the judiciary could strike down an unconstitutional law. The DOJ lawyer, Dana Lydia Kaersvang, answered yes — and mentioned Marbury v. Madison, the landmark case that firmly established the principle of judicial review more than 200 years ago, according to the lawyer in the courtroom.

Smith then became "very stern," the source said, telling the lawyers arguing the case it was not clear to "many of us" whether the president believes such a right exists....Smith, a Reagan appointee, went on to say that comments from the president and others in the Executive Branch indicate they believe judges don't have the power to review laws and strike those that are unconstitutional, specifically referencing Mr. Obama's comments yesterday about judges being an "unelected group of people."

Despite the fact that Kaersvang immediately acknowledged that courts can indeed strike down laws, the panel ordered her to "submit a three-page, single-spaced letter by noon Thursday addressing whether the Executive Branch believes courts have such power."

Seriously? These judges are acting like a middle school teacher handing out punishment to a student because of something her father said at a city council meeting the night before. I'm a little hard pressed to finish up this post on quite the right note of jaw-droppitude, but luckily an attorney friend from the South just emailed me about this. Here's his take:

This is meant to embarrass the President. Full stop. Jesus, this is getting scary. It just seems like all out partisan war brought by the Republicans from all corners of the Government. They want to push it as far as they can. And then further. It's incredibly destructive.

Somebody on the right needs to speak up about this. It's an outrageous abuse of judicial power.

UPDATE: Allahpundit speaks up. Judge Smith, he says, was "honked off" at Obama's Rose Garden suggestion that overturning ACA would be "unprecedented":

No true-blue Warren-Court-loving lefty like The One would ever seriously impugn judicial review. And the Fifth Circuit knows it. What they’re doing here is humiliating him as a way of getting him to stop the demagoguery, with the letter acting as the equivalent of a kid writing on the blackboard as punishment after class. “I will not question Marbury v. Madison, I will not question Marbury v. Madison, I will not question...”

Just what we need. Conservative judges getting "honked off" at a presidential speech and deciding to dish out a little extrajudicial humiliation just to make their honked-offitude clear.

Why High Inflation is Good in a Recession

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 6:03 PM EDT

In a recession, you'd expect average pay to adjust to a lower level. As unemployment rises, workers should be willing to accept lower wages, and as wages drop employers should become more willing to hire new workers. If this doesn't happen, the recession is likely to persist. One of the current problems in Greece and Spain, for example, is that their workers became increasingly uncompetitive over the past decade. One way to correct this is by devaluing their currency, which would effectively reduce wages countrywide compared to the rest of Europe, but because they're both on the euro they can't do this.

Another way to effectively reduce wages countrywide is to keep compensation constant but allow a higher inflation rate. If inflation is running at, say, 4%, and you get no pay increase this year, your wages have effectively gone down 4%.

But what if inflation is low? Then the only way to reduce wages is to actually reduce wages. For a variety of reasons, however, employers generally aren't willing to do that. It just pisses off their workers too much. At least, that's the theory. And the chart on the right, from a San Francisco Fed letter, demonstrates that it seems to be true. It tracks wage changes during 2011, and there's a huge spike at zero. Employers don't have a big problem handing out tiny raises and letting inflation do their dirty work for them, but they don't like to directly reduce wages themselves:

This is supported by the large gap to the left of zero between the actual distribution of wage changes and the dashed black line representing the normal distribution. This gap suggests that the spike at zero is made up mostly of workers whose wages otherwise would have been cut.

The moral of this story is that tolerating high inflation during a recession is a helpful thing. The faster wages adjust, the faster the recession will be over, and a high inflation rate allows wages to adjust downward even if employers simply keep nominal pay flat. It's probably too late for this to make much of a difference anymore, but an inflation target of 4% starting back in 2008 probably would have produced a stronger and faster recovery than the one we're finally getting now.

Fox News is Inside the White House's OODA Loop

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

Gardiner Harris has a long front-page piece in the New York Times today about friction between the FDA and the White House over just how strict the FDA's rules should be. With one exception (Kathleeen Sebelius's overrule of the FDA's decision to make the Plan B emergency contraceptive available over the counter) the conflicts actually struck me as fairly minor. One was a labeling issue, another seems to have been little more than a request for information, one is still up in the air, and another was a reaction to a pretty outrageous case of price gouging. This is the stuff of fairly routine bureaucratic scuffling.

But even if there's maybe a little less here than meets the eye, it's interesting to read the genesis of the bickering:

A decision that had nothing to do with the F.D.A. proved the turning point in the agency’s relationship with the White House. In the midst of the bitter 2009 battle to pass a law to provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, the United States Preventive Services Task Force announced in November that most women should not get routine mammograms until age 50 because the risks of the X-ray screens and surgical biopsies that often follow outweighed the benefits in younger women.

Although the task force did not consider cost in its analysis, Republicans charged that its recommendation was the start of health care rationing, an accusation given prominent play on Fox News. “That scared the bejesus out of everybody,” a top F.D.A. official said.

....A provision of the new law required chain restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” to post calorie counts on menus....The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — stated that movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines would be included. A report about the proposal in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 31, 2010, nevertheless caught the White House by surprise.

“This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state,” a senior F.D.A. official said. Beth Martino, the F.D.A.’s chief spokeswoman, was instructed to write a blog post reversing the agency’s draft guidance even before the comment period closed and did so on Sept. 8.

Consumer advocates were outraged.

If this is true, Fox News has really gotten inside the Obama administration's head. On big issues, Obama seems generally willing to take the long view and just accept whatever attacks he's going to get. But at the same time, it sounds like the White House is almost hypersensitive to the potential for smaller issues to balloon into gigantic tea party press frenzies. And on those issues, the game isn't worth the candle. They aren't willing to take weeks or months of demagoguery on Fox over the question of whether movie theaters have to tell us just how bad their popcorn is. (Pretty bad!)

So Fox News is clearly inside the White House's OODA loop in a pretty systematic way these days. Congratulations, guys.