2012 - %3, July

Building Stuff in Cities is Really Hard, Washington DC Edition

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 7:51 PM PDT

One of my rules of thumb whenever I see something sort of odd that has no obvious explanation is: ADA. That is, it might very well be the result of someone trying to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. To see what I mean, Matt Yglesias has a fine little story here about how ADA compliance morphed into a $7 billion track renovation project in Washington DC.

In fairness, ADA is only a part of the story. Still, it's a part. And it's surprising how often it seems to play a role in otherwise inexplicable projects and rules. What's more, even if ADA isn't truly the taproot of all this proposed new construction at Union Station, it's still a pretty good story about how a relatively small improvement in an already densely-built urban area leads by inevitable concatenation into a fantastically complicated and expensive project. For want of a nail etc.

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Medicaid Turns Out To Be a Pretty Popular Program

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 5:27 PM PDT

The latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll is out, and it contains a couple of interesting tidbits. The first is that the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling apparently had a substantial effect on public opinion. In the previous 18 months, support for keeping or expanding the law had been comfortably higher than support for repealing the law, by roughly 50%-40%. But in July, after the ruling, support for the law dropped dramatically, now slightly trailing repeal by 46%-45%.

But the finding on the right surprised me more. More than half the respondents said that Medicaid was important to them or their family. That suggests a much higher level of support for Medicaid than I would have expected. And this isn't just among the poor, either. The importance of Medicaid is obviously higher among those with lower incomes, but even among those with incomes over $90,000, a full 36% say Medicaid is important to them or their family.1

As you'd expect, this means that support for expanding Medicaid is pretty strong too: 67% of respondents support Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid. That includes even 39% of Republicans.

There are some caveats and nuances to these numbers, and you can read the entire survey here. Overall, though, it looks like Medicaid is more popular than I thought.

1For well-off families, this is most likely due to Medicaid's payments for long-term and nursing care for the elderly. In the Kaiser poll, 49% of the respondents said this was one of the reasons Medicaid was important to them.

Barack Obama Has Been Mysteriously Apathetic About Nominating Judges

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 3:21 PM PDT

Jonathan Bernstein points me to Jeffrey Toobin, who writes that although Republican obstruction of President Obama's judicial appointments has been unprecedented, it's also true that Obama hasn't nominated many judges in the first place. "The Senate cannot confirm judges who were never nominated in the first place," he points out. And there's more:

The President’s lethargy on the matter of judicial nominations is inexplicable. So is his silence on the subject. George W. Bush complained loudly when he felt Democrats in the Senate had delayed or obstructed his judicial nominees. Obama has said little. Indeed, Bush had a public judicial philosophy as President, frequently calling on judges to “strictly apply the Constitution and laws, not legislate from the bench.” As a former president of the Harvard Law Review and long-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama has a great deal of familiarity with legal issues but hardly ever talks about them. His legal philosophy, if he has one, is unknown.

I find many of the liberal complaints about Obama unconvincing, mainly because I viewed him from the very start as a rather cautious, mainstream Democrat. I didn't expect the second coming of FDR. But there are some areas where I've nonetheless found Obama inexplicably disappointing. Housing policy, for example. National security and civil liberties policy. And judicial nominations.

In fact, that last one is the most inexplicable of all. The first two at least have the excuse of considerable political opposition. But judicial nominations don't. Republicans can be blamed for obstructing, but Obama is solely to blame for not mustering the energy to vet and nominate candidates for every open seat — or being willing to fight for them in the court of public opinion. At a bare minimum, if his legal team had done this in the first half of 2009, he would have had plenty of candidates to muscle through during the few months he commanded a filibuster-proof majority.

So why didn't he? It's a helluva mystery.

Per Capita, America Had More Good Jobs in the Disco Era

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 12:18 PM PDT

Center for Economic and Policy ResearchCenter for Economic and Policy ResearchFor the purposes of this graph, the Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one that includes health insurance and retirement benefits and pays at least as much as the median wage, adjusted for inflation, earned by a male worker in 1979. ($12,300 per year back then and $37,000 per year today.) Kind of sad, isn't it?

Note that there is a conspicuous partisan trend in the graph: The number of good jobs fell during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, rebounded during the Clinton years, and fell again during the administration of George W. Bush. Good jobs haven't made much of a comeback during the Obama administration, but he inherited an economy from his predecessor that's still fighting it's way out of a catastrophic meltdown.

Democrats and Republicans tend to agree that creating more good jobs requires building a more educated workforce. Unfortunately, the fortunes of college-educated workers haven't really improved over the past 30 years either; they've just eroded more slowly:

Center for Economic and Policy ResearchCenter for Economic and Policy ResearchSo what's going on here? As we've often pointed out on Mother Jones, the travails of the American middle class hinge on a variety of interrelated factors, including automation, the decline of labor unions, globalization, and the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, to name a few. The Center for Economic and Policy Research also points out out that the minimum wage today, adjusted for inflation, is 15 percent below what it was in 1979. Who ever thought that the era of bell bottoms and the Bee Gees would be considered the good old days?

Does Algebra Help You Think Better?

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 11:45 AM PDT

A couple of days ago Andrew Hacker wrote a New York Times op-ed asking "Is Algebra Necessary?" It was prompted by the growing trend to require a passing grade in algebra as a condition for graduating from high school, and Hacker argues that this trend is doing a lot of damage, helping to make dropouts out of kids who are perfectly adequate in every way except their ability to manipulate abstract symbols. Eugene Volokh, however, suggests that Hacker is wrong:

Though I’m not certain of this, I suspect that algebraic problem-solving teaches useful mental habits that both open up possible future careers and also help train people’s general problem-solving abilities.

I'm not picking on Eugene here. I just had his post handy as an example of an argument that I've seen frequently in response to Hacker's piece. So I'm curious: is there any evidence at all that knowledge of algebra (not arithmetic, algebra) teaches useful mental habits or improves people's general problem-solving abilities? Obviously algebra is useful if you plan to learn more math in order to pursue a science or engineering career. But for your garden variety high-school grad, does knowledge of algebra truly instill an ability to reason better? I have to say that my personal experience is that it doesn't: people with a strong math background don't seem to reason any better than anyone else. I suspect that those of us who are good at algebra tend to vastly overestimate its impact on our mental habits.

Just to be absolutely clear here: General numeracy is useful, and it's especially useful for understanding numerical problems. (Duh.) That's not what I'm asking about. What I'm asking is whether mere knowledge of algebra produces better mental habits in other areas of life. It might! But is there any actual evidence to back this up?

New England Is 85 Percent Rainier Than It Was in 1948

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 9:50 AM PDT

Lightning over Brooklyn on October 11, 2010.

We know that droughts in parts of the country have likely been exacerbated by climate change and are expected to get worse in the future. But climate shifts are also causing bigger, badder rainstorms in other parts of the country, according to a new report Environment America released released on Tuesday.

Extreme precipitation events are getting bigger, says the report, which is aptly titled, "When It Rains, It Pours":

Environment AmericaEnvironment America

And big downpours are also happening more often:

Environment AmericaEnvironment America

To put together the report, Environment America looked at 80 million daily precipitation records in the US dating back to 1948, and found a 30 percent increase in the frequency of extreme rain- and snowstorms. That means that fierce downpours that used to happen once a year or so back around 1948 are now happening every 9 months. This is particularly true in the northeast, as New England saw an 85 percent increase in heavy precipitation and the Mid-Atlantic saw a 55 percent increase. (The authors defined "extreme storms" as "those expected to occur no more than once per year on average at a particular location based on the historical record," or the 64 highest precipitation totals for a 24-hour period at each weather station.)

The reason is pretty simple: "Warmer temperatures cause more evaporation, and warmer air holds more water, intensifying the water cycle," they write. 

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I Have a Solution That Will Allow Florida to Ban Doctors From Asking About Guns

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 9:26 AM PDT

Via Ed Kilgore, I see that Florida recently passed a law making it illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership. A federal judge blocked the law a few weeks ago because — duh — it's an obvious violation of the First Amendment. If this case ever makes it to the Supreme Court, I have no doubt that it will be overturned 9-0. It's a no-brainer no matter how gun-friendly a judge you are.

But I have a solution! I'm pretty sure that Florida can issue guidelines to its own employees, and those guidelines could include rules about whether its employees are allowed to ask about gun ownership. So Florida's law would probably pass constitutional muster if their doctors all worked for the state.

Do you see where I'm going with this? If Florida were to implement true, NHS-style socialized healthcare, they could tell their doctors to zip it on the gun questions. And surely the NRA would support this, since any and all gun rights laws, symbolic or otherwise, are always more important than any other law.

Too bad Obama and the Democratic Party didn't sniff this out earlier. If they had just included a provision in Obamacare that restricted any doctor receiving federal money from asking about gun ownership, they could have had a way stronger bill and passed it 100-0. Maybe next time.

Working Class Men's Wages Have Plummeted Over the Past 40 Years

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 9:01 AM PDT

Dylan Matthews says a bit more today about something I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago: among men, wages haven't just stagnated over the past few decades. They've plummeted:

As you can see on the black line in the above graph, median earnings for men in 2009 were lower than they were in the early 1970s. And it gets worse. The decline shown above is actually too mild, because it doesn’t take into account the massive exodus from the workforce of men since that period. Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men working fulltime fell from 83 percent to 66 percent, and the share not making formal wages tripled from 6 percent to 18 percent. When you take all men, not just those working fulltime, into account, the slight decline in the above graph becomes a plummet of 28 percent in median real wages from 1969 to 2009.

....High school dropouts’ earnings have fallen 66 percent since 1969, and people with some college – the median level of education in the US – have seen earnings fall by a third. Reasonable people can disagree about what caused this massive decline and what should be done to fix it. But it’s a major crisis....

This decline in both male employment and male wages has been going on for 40 years now, and as Dylan mentions, it's far worse at the bottom of the ladder than at the top. Male high school grads working full time earn 25% less than they used to, and if you account for those not working or working only part time, aggregate wages are down by nearly half.

Half! And that's for high school grads, not dropouts. (And the picture changes only modestly if you add health benefits to the wage picture.) These are men who basically played by the rules, got their diploma, and then went into the workforce. Or tried to, anyway. But they're finding it far harder to find steady, full-time work than their fathers did, and when they do they earn dramatically less than their fathers did. So I'll repeat what I said the last time I wrote about this: if you want to understand why marriage has declined among the working and lower middle classes, you have to understand what's happened to male wages. It's not the whole answer, but there's simply no way that it's not a big factor.

A Lesson From the Senate in How Not to Stop Leaks

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 8:03 AM PDT

California senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would ban background briefings by analysts who work for intelligence agencies:

Under the Senate bill, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be allowed “to provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”

The term “background” typically means that a source can be identified broadly by his or her government position but not by name. The bill would not prevent analysts from speaking on the record, but they are rarely allowed to be identified because of security concerns.

The provision is part of a series of anti-leak measures included in an authorization bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The crackdown is fueled by frustration over recent articles that disclosed details of U.S. counterterrorism operations and cyber-penetrations of Iran.

Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.

This is, as Reuters foreign correspondent Missy Ryan tweeted, "ominous." And it's ominous for a variety of reasons. First, nobody gets leaks from background briefings. Second, it's a dumb overreaction to a problem that's been around forever. Third, it will likely do nothing to slow down national security leaks. And fourth, it suggests that Feinstein and others are perfectly happy to ignore the real problem in favor of vapid showboating.

In other words, it's the United States Senate at work. It's good to see that some traditions never die.

Mitt Romney's Palestinian Pander

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 7:28 AM PDT

As we all know, Mitt Romney said this yesterday:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

....Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for a reason why two neighboring places could have such disparate prosperity.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

Can I just point out the obvious here? This wasn't a gaffe. This was a deliberate pander to the conservative base in the U.S., which pretty strongly believes that Palestinian culture is indeed corrupt, indolent, and sullen. Romney knows this perfectly well. He was demonstrating once again, in a very concrete way, that he's no RINO. He really, truly feels tea-party style conservatism in his bones. It wasn't just an offhand mistake.