2009 - %3, June

Unemployment and the Stress Tests

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:56 AM EDT

This is, obviously, nothing new, but Felix Salmon is right to remind us that the "adverse" scenario for Tim Geithner's stress tests — that is, the worst case doomsday projection — used an unemployment rate of 8.9% for 2009.  The reality, though, is already much gloomier: we're only up to May and the actual unemployment rate is 9.4% and still heading north.

One number doesn't represent an entire economy.  But this one is pretty important, and Treasury's forecasters weren't even in the right ballpark.  It makes you wonder how realistic the rest of their assumptions were.

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Quote of the Day

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

From JB Williams, a "no nonsense commentator on American politics, American history, and American philosophy":

Why does the Obama administration need or want the latitude and longitude coordinates for every home in America? Why the rush to GPS paint every home in the next 90 days? Why must the marker be within 40 ft of every front door? For what possible purpose does the Fed [i.e., the Census Bureau –ed.] need GPS coordinates for every home, and under what authority do they have the right?

I sure hope nobody ever tells this poor guy about the U.S. Postal Service and how they manage to deliver mail to your house every day.  He'd probably have a stroke.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:18 AM EDT

Dana McCourt provides this handy chart showing just what the stakes are in the fight over late-term abortions.  If, like me, you think that viability outside the uterus is the best rough measure of whether a fetus is a human being that deserves legal protection, this chart is telling: the absolute lower limit for viability is around 22 weeks, and only about 1% of all abortions are performed that late.  Past 24 weeks, according to a footnote later in the post, only about 100 abortions are performed per year.  Post-viability abortions are very, very rare, and performed almost exclusively for serious medical reasons.

Needless to say, if you believe that life begins at conception and are unwilling to accept that personhood is a continuum with some inevitable grayness, this won't persuade you of anything.  For the rest of us, who believe that fetuses become human beings at some point during pregnancy but before birth, it's worth understanding just how few post-viability abortions there are.  And since that 22-week marker is due to fundamental developmental issues related to the brain and the skull, it's unlikely that scientific advances outside of full-blown artificial wombs will ever have much effect on this.

In any case, no matter how you feel about this, now you know.  Late term abortions are very rare things indeed.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Does Sotomayor Oppose The Death Penalty?

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:10 AM EDT

Republicans in Congress have all but given up trying to derail the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor for a Supreme Court seat. Even Manny Miranda, the controversial conservative leading the attacks on Sotomayor, has admitted he has no hope of winning a filibuster because the GOP just doesn't have the numbers. That stark fact apparently won't stop serious right-wingers from attempting to bloody Sotomayor anyway, this time over her stance on the death penalty.

Today, Wendy Long, counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee complaining that Sotomayor has failed to make public controversial materials from her 12-year membership in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she was once a board member. The documents purportedly show her opposing reinstatement of New York's death penalty back in 1981.  Long is shocked--shocked!--that Sotomayor signed on to a memo suggesting that "Capital punishment is associated with evident racism in our society.”

Congressional Climate Change Games

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 10:37 AM EDT

A couple weeks back, the Center for Public Integrity reported on the massive lobbying effort targeting the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which literally hundreds of businesses and interest groups are vying to influence. And—surprise, surprise—some congressional have responded by quietly tweaking the bill in industry friendly ways. Today, the Washington Post singles out a handful of interesting provisions slipped into the bill by Democrats on the House energy and commerce committee. Take this sly maneuver by Rep. Gene Green, the Texas Democrat:

During the final days of the drafting of a 946-page climate bill,  Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.) won support for an amendment that deleted a single word and inserted two others. The words could be worth millions of dollars to U.S. oil refiners.

The Green amendment deleted the word "sources" and inserted "emission points." In the arcane world of climate legislation, that tiny bit of editing might one day give petroleum refiners valuable rights to emit carbon dioxide when it otherwise might not have been allowed. Refiners could get the extra allowances in return for cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent at a single point of a vast refinery complex instead of slashing emissions by 50 percent for the entire facility.

Dems v. Dems

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:43 AM EDT

Chris Hayes:

It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman. [Click the link for an explanation of what this analogy means. –ed.]

"Most Republicans aren't waking up every day thinking, How do we kill banking regulation?" says Goehl. "Most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh aren't waking up thinking about how do we kill banking regulation. But the people with the deep pockets who have power in DC are thinking that.

"I sometimes get frustrated because it seems like the left isn't focused on corporate power. We like to talk about the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs, and meanwhile the American Bankers Association is one of the main entities running the country."

....While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.

Chris is right: the biggest threat to the Democratic agenda these days isn't the Republican Party.  It's the Democratic Party.

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Healthcare and Bankruptcy

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:07 AM EDT

Last night I linked to story about a new study showing that medical bills contributed to 62% of all personal bankruptcies in 2007.  According to the authors, that's up 50% from 2001, once you adjust the numbers to compare apples to apples.

Megan McArdle is skeptical.  Objection 1: could slowly but steadily rising healthcare costs really cause such a huge increase in the bankruptcy stats in just six years?  It's hard to say without more data, but it sounds plausible to me given the fact that bankruptcies are outliers to begin with.  Objection 2: other studies have come to different conclusions.  That's addressed here.  Objection 3: why do the subjects of the study themselves self-report at different levels?  That's also addressed here.

But this is all just throat clearing.  Megan's real objection is this:

[Elizabeth] Warren and her co-authors have obscured important and obvious facts that call the integrity of the work into serious question.

....What Warren et. al. neglect to mention is that bankruptcies fell between 2001 and 2007.  In fact, they were cut in half.  Going by the numbers Warren et. al. provide, medical bankruptcies actually fell by almost 220,000 between 2001 and 2007, a fact that they not only fail to mention, but deliberately obscure.

Are Warren, et. al. unaware that bankruptcies fell by half?  No bankruptcy analyst could possibly be unaware of this fact; it has been the most talked-about phenomenon in the bankruptcy area since the 2005 law was passed.

....What's left out here?  That in 2001, 1.45 million households filed for bankruptcy.  In 2007, that number was 727,167.   Had their paper done the basic arithmetic, readers would easily have seen that their own numbers imply a decrease in medical bankruptcies, from about 750,000 to slightly over 500,000.  Yet their paper does not merely ignore this fact; it uses language that seems deliberately designed to conceal it.  I invite any of my readers to scan the paper for any hint that medical bankruptcies had fallen significantly over 6 years.

For my money, this is an important point that should have been addressed directly in the study.  At the same time, it's not clear that it's nearly as sinister as Megan suggests.  If I move out the fences in every baseball stadium in the country, the fact that fewer home runs are hit at Dodger Stadium isn't very interesting.  What is interesting is whether the proportion of home runs per at-bat goes up or down at Dodger Stadium more than it does elsewhere.

Likewise, the authors of the bankruptcy study faced a change in the law that affected all bankruptcies and made it impossible to compare raw numbers. The fences had been moved out, and a large number of people who once would have declared bankruptcy because of, say, a $20,000 medical bill, couldn't do so anymore.  Naturally the absolute number of medical bankruptcies went down, but that doesn't really tell us much.

It's impossible to say anything with certainty since the change in the law was so sweeping, but other data in the study suggests that bankruptcies with a medical component are similar to the overall population of bankruptcies, both demographically and otherwise.  They aren't systematically either better or worse off than average.  This in turn suggests that if you compare the better-off half and the worst-off half of all pre-2005 bankruptcy filers, their medical components probably matched pretty closely.

Why do we care?  Because bankruptcy filings after 2005, when the law made it harder to file, were probably similar to the worst-off half of the pre-2005 bankruptcy filings.  This means the group in the 2007 study is probably similar to the worst-off half of the group in the 2001 study — which makes a direct comparison impossible.  However, since the proportion of medical bankruptcies in that group likely mirrors the proportion in the entire pre-2005 population, it means that if the law hadn't changed and the total population of bankruptcies had stayed large, the proportion of medical bankruptcies probably still would have increased.  This is all very rough and tentative, and better data would be helpful.  Still, even though I agree that this is something the authors should have addressed head on, they probably did about as well as they could with the hand they were dealt.

What Will People Do For Free?

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 8:54 PM EDT

Barron YoungSmith remarks on the fact that Craigslist actively avoids making a profit:

As Paul Starr has explained, newspapers only flourished during the past few centuries because they functioned as intermediaries between readers and advertisers — fundamentally, they survived because they were institutions that stood between people.

Now, along comes Craigslist, which sees cutting these sorts of intermediaries out of the equation as a form of public service. It considers that mission so important that it is willing to forego huge potential profits and compete against classified pages everywhere while charging virtually nothing for what it offers. In that kind of environment, it's pretty ludicrous to think that newspapers could survive.

Probably so.  Especially since Craigslist works better than newspaper classified advertising.  I've got some old darkroom equipment that's been sitting in my garage for ages, and if I had to go through the hassle of taking out a newspaper classified ad to sell it, it would still be there.  But last night at about 6 pm I suddenly decided to advertise it on Craigslist.  Two hours later I got a response from a guy in Long Beach.  This morning he came by, took a look at the whole setup, and hauled everything off.  I'm a few dollars richer, he's excited at the prospect of setting up a darkroom, and the whole transaction took less than 24 hours.  Amazing.

(Also amazing: using a darkroom must be like riding a bicycle.  You remember how to do it forever.  It's been 20 years since I used this stuff, but as I was showing him how to operate everything and what all the various parts were for, I realized I hadn't forgotten a thing.  I could have set up the entire kit, mixed up the chemicals, and been back in business in an hour.  I can't really think of anything else from so far in my past that I can say that about.)

Anyway: Ten years ago, I remember ruminating over the open source movement and wondering what its limits were.  What kind of stuff would people do for free, and what kind of stuff wouldn't they?  Since open source software is mostly produced by obsessive nerds, the obvious answer is that they'll work for free on the kind of things that obsessive nerds themselves like to use: operating systems, editors, compilers, etc.  Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have, say, the firmware for controlling GM's assembly line robots.  Nobody in their right mind would do that for free.

But where's the line?  The interesting answer is: if it's the kind of thing that one person (or a small set of people) can do, then it's wherever one competent person draws it.  I'd guess that very few people feel that classified advertising (!) is so important to a vibrant society that they want to dedicate their lives to making it available for free, but it turned out that it didn't take very many people.  Just one guy named Craig.

So now I think about this stuff a little differently.  Sure, some things are just more fun than others, and thus more likely to attract people to do them for free.  But just as important is: how many people does it take?  Once something gets to the point where it only takes a person or three to do it, then there's a pretty good chance that someone, somewhere will start offering it for free.  Even if it's something that most sane people think is boring as hell, there's almost bound to be at least one person who's obsessed by it.  Like classified advertising.

Estrogen Kills Fish

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 7:48 PM EDT

Estrogen is bad for fish. In more ways than we thought.

We know that estrogen and estrogen-mimicking chemicals known as endocrine disruptors cause intersex fish—that is, males with immature female egg cells in their testes.

New research finds that fish exposed to estrogen produce less immune-related proteins, making them more susceptible to disease. This suggests why fish in the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers are simultaneously afflicted by mass kills, lesions, and intersex fish.

US Geological Survey researchers suspected that estrogens were causing fish kills and fish lesions as well as intersex fish in the two river systems. So they exposed largemouth bass to estrogen and found the fish produced less hepcidin—an iron-regulating hormone of mammals, fish, and amphibians.

Exactly what hepcidin does to boost immune systems is unclear. But it may act as an antimicrobial peptide, the first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Or it might affect the iron balance in infected vertebrates. Or both.

We do know we're loosing megatons of synthetic chemicals into waterways every year. Most are plastics additives, surfactants, birth control agents, antimicrobials, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, or controls for insect, weed, and fungal populations.

But all too many wind their way from industry, livestock, irrigation, sewage, and storm run-off into lakes, ponds, oceans, marshes, streams, rivers, and groundwater—eventually into fish.

And from there into humans, perhaps accounting for the alarming rise of human male reproductive disorders in recent years, including birth defects of the penis, undescended testes, reduced sperm production, and testicular cancer.

You think that might slow down the chemical pipeline. Especially in rivers so close to Washington, DC. But apparently money is worth more than masculinity.
 

USNWR: Clemson Can't Fool Us

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 5:30 PM EDT

Earlier today, Clemson University tried desperately to save face by claiming it had not tried to manipulate the U.S. News and World Report ranking system after all. Now, USNWR's trying to unsully its own reputation by saying it's up to Clemson's tricks, particularly the one where they rate other universities lower than themselves on the reputation survey:

In terms of the reputation survey, U.S. News has safeguards in place to prevent strategic voting from affecting the results. We subtract a few of the highest and lowest scores from respondents before the results are calculated in order to prevent downgrading or upgrading from altering the results. We are confident that such voting practices by respondents are not affecting the results of the reputation survey in any meaningful statistical way.

But Inside Higher Ed quoted Catherine Watt, Clemson's director of institutional research, as saying everyone cheats on the reputation surveys:

And to actual gasps from some members of the audience, Watt said that Clemson officials, in filling out the reputational survey form for presidents, rate "all programs other than Clemson below average," to make the university look better. "And I'm confident my president is not the only one who does that," Watt said.

If everyone does it, then simply throwing out the highs and lows won't fix the problem, right?

Update: Could the Clemson scandal kill USNWR?