Health Update

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 8:38 PM EST

I just got back from a visit with the oncologist, and she says all my test results are normal. My IgG levels are normal. My light kappa chains are normal. Hooray!

Except, of course, for the one test that really matters, the M protein marker (a proxy for the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow). It's now gone down from 0.9 to 0.72 to 0.63 to 0.55. My own amateur analysis suggests that this means it will plateau at around 0.3 or 0.4, which is not great news since we want to get it to zero. My oncologist's professional analysis is that, hey, maybe the cancer is already gone and the protein markers are just hanging around for a while.

Do I sound a little annoyed at my inability to ever get anything but happy talk from these folks? Yeah, I guess so. I understand that there's not much point in getting bent out of shape about these results until I've been on the new meds long enough to get a truly reliable reading. I also understand that oncologists want to keep their patients from getting depressed. Still, I wish I had a little more visibility about what's likely to happen over the next year or so.

Oh well. At least the M protein marker level is going in the right direction. This means I'm basically in good shape for a while. And I feel pretty good, though I think the higher dose of the new med is making me a little bit more tired than usual. Nothing serious, though. For the time being, everything is in pretty good shape.

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The Press Needs to Fight Back on Republican Tax Lunacy

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 5:46 PM EST

Steve Benen on the Rubio-Lee tax plan:

At first blush, it’s tempting to see Marco Rubio’s economic plan as a dog-bites-man story: Republican presidential campaign proposes massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, even while saying the opposite.

Benen goes on to manfully make the case that Rubio's tax crankery actually does deserve extra special attention, but I'm not sure he does the job. Sure, Rubio's deficit would be humongous, but so would everyone else's. And Rubio has a helluva mountain to climb to take the top spot in the tax craziness derby. Let's roll the tape:

  • The "sensible" candidate says his tax plan will boost growth to 4 percent a year. His advisors have basically admitted that this number was pulled out of thin air.
  • A second candidate, not to be outdone on the absurd growth front, says his plan will cause the economy to take off like a rocket, producing growth as high as 6 percent. How will he manage this? "I just will."
  • Another candidate suggests we adopt a tax plan based on the Biblical practice of tithing.
  • Yet another candidate, apparently thinking that tithing isn't quite crazy enough, proposes an even lower flat tax.

This is all fantasyland stuff. So why doesn't the media hammer them more on it? Why do debate moderators let them get away with such lunacy? Good question. John Harwood tried the only honest approach in the last debate, suggesting that Donald Trump was running a "comic book" campaign—and it was Harwood who got hammered. Harwood gamely tried a second time with Trump, telling him that "you have as much chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from that podium by flapping your arms." Trump brushed him off. Harwood tried yet again with Rubio, this time citing numbers from the Tax Foundation, and Rubio brushed him off. That's a couple of tries at mockery and one try at arithmetic, and they both had the same effect.

There's not much left to do. If candidates want to say that brass is gold, and people choose to believe them despite piles of evidence to the contrary, you're stuck. Eventually you feel like you have to move on to something else.

But maybe you don't. Maybe you just keep asking, over and over. Maybe you ask every candidate the same question. Republicans will scream about how the liberal media hates them, and then they'll trot out their pet economists to insist that tax cuts really do hypercharge the economy. The moderators will take a lot of heat over this. But it might actually turn supply-side nuttiness into a real topic that gets its 15 minutes of fame. That's better than nothing.

California Could Be the Next Saudi Arabia

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 4:44 PM EST
California's Imperial Valley: a desert in bloom.

In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia embarked upon a bold project: It began to transform large swaths of desert landscape into wheat farms.

Now, "desert agriculture" isn't quite the oxymoron it might sound like. These arid zones offer ample sunlight and cool nights, and harbor few crop-chomping insects, fungal diseases, or weed species. As long as you can strategically add water and fertilizer, you'll generate bin-busting crops. And that's exactly what Saudi Arabia did. As this Bloomberg News piece shows, the oil-producing behemoth grew so much wheat for about two decades that "its exports could feed Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Yemen."

To irrigate its wheat-growing binge, Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers that "haven't been filled since the last Ice Age."

But starting in the mid-2000s, Saudi wheat production began to taper off. Soon after, it plunged. This year and from now on, the country will produce virtually no wheat, and instead rely on global markets for the staple grain. What happened?

In short, to irrigate its wheat-growing binge, the nation tapped aquifers that "haven't been filled since the last Ice Age," Bloomberg reports. And in doing so, it essentially drained them dry in the span of two decades.

In an April 2015 piece, the Center for Investigative Reporting's Nathan Halverson brought more details. He writes that the first sign of Saudi agriculture's water crisis began in the early 2000s,when long-established desert springs—ones that had "bubbled up for thousands of years from a massive aquifer system that lay underneath Saudi Arabia"—began to dry up. It had been "one of the world's largest underground systems, holding as much groundwater as Lake Erie." Here's Halverson:

In the historic town of Tayma, which was built atop a desert oasis mentioned several times in the Old Testament, researchers in 2011 found "most wells exsiccated." That's academic speak for "bone dry." The once-verdant Tayma oasis that had sustained human life for millennia—archaeologists have found stone tablets there dating back 2,500 years—was drained in one generation.

In the meantime, farmers' wells, too, began to go dry, and they had to drill them ever-deeper to keep the water flowing. By 2012, fully four-fifths of the ancient aquifer had vanished; and the Saudi government had begun to reconsider its make-the-desert-bloom ambitions, which have now turned to dust.

It's impossible to know when California's aquifers will go dry, because no one has invested in the research required to gauge just how much water is left.

Here in the United States, we've followed a similar strategy for fruit, vegetable, and nut production, concentrating it in arid regions of California, irrigated by diverting river water over great distances, and, like the Saudis, tapping massive ancient aquifers. But climate change means less snow to feed rivers and thus to water farms—and more reliance on those underwater reserves. In California's vast Central Valley, a major site of US food production, fully half of wells are at or below historic lows, according to the US Geological Survey. It's impossible to know when the region's aquifers will go dry, because no one has invested in the research required to gauge just how much water is left. But the trend is clear. In large swaths of the region, the land is sinking at rates up to 11 inches per year as underground water vanishes, USGS reports. The raiding of the region's water reserve is part of a decades-long trend, USGS makes clear, made worse, but not caused, by the current drought.

Two other California regions are significant suppliers to the national food market: the Salinas Valley, known as the "salad bowl of the world"; and the Imperial Valley, which specializes in fresh winter produce. They, too, face severe long-term water trouble.

Unlike their Saudi peers, US policymakers don't have the luxury of waiting until the water runs out and then simply shifting to a reliance on imports—our population is more than ten times larger. One idea for what to do instead: Enact policies that boost vegetable production in other, more water-rich regions, including the Midwest and South—a process I have dubbed de-Californiacation. To bolster themselves, they may want to ponder what's scribbled on the ruins of a vanished desert kingdom, as imagined by the Romantic poet Shelley: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Here's the Latest in the GOP Horserace

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 3:11 PM EST

Apropos of nothing in particular, here's the latest Pollster aggregate for the Republican nomination. It looks to me like Trump is finally sliding, while Carson seems to have plateaued around 20 percent or so. Rubio and Cruz are up over the past few weeks, but it's too soon to tell if this just a blip, or the start of something real. Jeb Bush is declining slightly, but not out of it yet.

So who gets all the Trump and Carson votes when those two inevitably implode? And is it really inevitable? Beats me. This is just the weirdest Republican race ever. Ever since Scott Walker, my early favorite, displayed such awesome ineptitude that he literally dropped to 0 percent in the polls, I've been reluctant to utter a peep about who seems likely to win this year. Who knows? Maybe it will all come down to a savage brawl between the two Floridians.

SeaWorld Is Ending Its Killer Whale Show

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 2:39 PM EST

SeaWorld will shut down the killer whale exhibition at its flagship San Diego location by next year, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

In its place would be a new orca experience debuting in 2017, described as "informative" and designed to take place in a more natural setting that would carry a "conservation message inspiring people to act."...The plan to gradually phase out the Shamu show comes amid efforts at both the state and federal level to clamp down on SeaWorld by ending the captive breeding of orcas, which would effectively bring to an end the parks' theatrical shows.

It's unclear whether the new "experience" will feature live orcas, and whether the decision will apply to any of the company's other locations in San Antonio and Orlando. A SeaWorld spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SeaWorld has faced broad public criticism—and a tanking share price—since the 2013 documentary Blackfish accused the company of keeping killer whales in inhumane conditions. The company has maintained that the whales serve a valuable scientific purpose, although many scientists disagree. The announcement also comes just days after a Congressional representative from California introduced legislation to ban the breeding of captive orcas and their capture from the wild.   

New Suitcase Offers Nothing New, Gets Big Writeup in Slate

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 1:56 PM EST

Today, in what is apparently not an ad, Slate is running an ad for Away, a fabulous new carry-on suitcase designed by two former Warby Parker executives. Here's the skinny:

To create their carry-on, Rubio and Korey spoke with thousands of people to determine what travelers look for most. They found that many consumers want attractive, well-constructed luggage that provides organization and....

With that in mind, they created a carry-on that has four durable double wheels—a design detail that alone took 20 designs iterations to get right—plus a laundry separation system that keeps belongings organized, YKK zippers that provide stability, and a....

Hmmm. So far that sounds like pretty much every other carry-on suitcase in the galaxy. But wait! What's behind those ellipses? This:

....and a built-in 10,000 mAh battery that can be charged beforehand and power a smartphone up to five times during a trip.

So let me get this straight. The big selling point of this suitcase is that it includes a built-in battery that's a lot less convenient than a standalone battery you can put anywhere you want? Or is it just that it has a special pocket for a battery? Either way, who cares? Buy a suitcase and a 10,000 mAh battery (about 20 bucks on Amazon) and you'll have the same thing the Warby Parker execs are hawking. And probably pay less.

What am I missing? Why did Slate run this?

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Charts of the Day: Americans Seem to Be About As Happy As Ever

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 1:06 PM EST

The new Case/Deaton paper about the rise in white deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses has inspired a lot of discussion about why Americans are apparently so despondent these days. Paul Krugman goes so far as to call it "existential despair."

I hate to throw a wet blanket on this pity party, but perhaps we should take a look at a few other data points before we decide that America is on the brink of a mass Jim Jones extinction event. For starters, here's a map from the 2015 World Happiness Report. Basically, it shows that most rich countries are pretty happy, including the United States:

For the record, we came in 15th. That's toward the low end of rich countries, but still pretty happy. Next up is a long-running Gallup poll about personal satisfaction:

Not much change there over the past few decades. Here's the Gallup mood tracking poll:

Not much change there either. Here's the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey:

It goes down during recessions and up when recessions end. Finally, here's the Pollster aggregate of the right track/wrong track polls beloved of pundits everywhere:

"Right track" took a big jump after Barack Obama was elected president, and then dropped back into the high 20s, where it's pretty much stayed ever since.

If you listen to a lot of Fox News—or pretty much any news, to be fair—you'd think Americans lived lives of torment and despair. But if you actually ask them how they feel, nothing much seems to have changed recently. If you plot the right/wrong track polls back further, I think you'll see a long-term decline, which suggests that Americans are, indeed, increasingly frustrated by politics. But apparently they don't really care much about it either, since they remain pretty chipper regardless.

Now, I just pulled these charts sort of randomly, and perhaps there are others that show something different. I'm wide open to seeing them. I just think that if we're going to talk about "existential despair," we should at least engage with the data a bit. And as near as I can tell, the data suggests that Americans as a whole are about as happy and satisfied with their lives as they've ever been. This doesn't necessarily mean that white Americans—the subject of the Case/Deaton paper—are as happy as they've ever been, but if you want to make the case that they're increasingly morose, at least show me some evidence. OK?

Forget Trump, Let's Talk About the Media

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 11:25 AM EST

Ashley Parker explains the new landscape of political advertising:

Thirty-second television commercials were once signs of a confident, well-financed candidacy for the White House. Now they are seen as a last resort of struggling campaigns that have not mastered the art of attracting the free media coverage that has lifted the political fortunes of insurgent campaigns like those of Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has surged to the top of the polls.

....In addition to having done countless interviews, Mr. Trump has been effective in using social media to attack his rivals, and many of his acrid and controversial quips on Twitter are rebroadcast by traditional news media outlets.

“I think he’s found ways to gain print and airtime by being available and quotable,” said Mike Schreurs, the founder and chief executive of Strategic America, a marketing and advertising firm based in Iowa. “He’s probably a more sophisticated user of media than any other presidential candidate we’ve ever seen.”

Can we stop right here? Donald Trump's "discovery," if it can be called that, is that the American media is a sucker for anything outrageous. That's it. They aren't covering Trump because he's Trump, they're covering him because he says Mexicans are murderers and rapists and politicians are all losers and Carly Fiorina is ugly. Whatever other virtues and faults Jeb Bush has, he's not willing to say stuff like that—so the media ignores him.

I'd like to see Parker do a follow-up piece that sheds the fiction of Trump somehow discovering a whole new strategy to get publicity. He hasn't. It's the same strategy he's always had to get airtime on entertainment shows. The difference is that most presidential candidates in the past figured they had to act at least nominally presidential if they didn't want to end up as ignored as Alan Keyes. But apparently the political media has changed. Reporters and editors are now as eager as any gossip show to cover obvious buffoonery, and both Trump and Ben Carson have ridden that wave.

Why? Is it just an artifact of struggling mainstream outlets that are desperate for something to pay the bills? Is it a sense that they have to compete with BuzzFeed and HuffPo? Forget Trump and Carson. Someone ought to write about changes in campaign reporting that have made the two of them possible.

Belgium is the World Leader in Sports Doping

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 10:37 AM EST

The New York Times tells us today that a new report says Russia is the world leader in doping. "The report recommended that Russia be suspended from competition by track and field’s governing body, and one of its authors said the commission would encourage the International Olympic Committee to bar Russia’s athletic federation from next summer’s Rio Olympics."

Fine by me. But take a look at the chart below. Belgium! They have less than a tenth of Russia's population but nearly half as many doping violations. On a per capita basis, they're the world leader by far. Why isn't anyone talking about banning Belgians from international competition?

Do Kids Start Kindergarten Too Early?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 9:40 AM EST

Tyler Cowen points us today to an interesting new study about kindergarten. It's from Denmark, as is so often the case, since the Danes keep very detailed records on their children.

In Denmark, it turns out, kids enter kindergarten in August of the year they turn six. So consider two kids. The first turns 6 on December 31, which means she was about 5½ when she started kindergarten. The second turns six on January 1, which means she has to wait until the following August, when she's about 6½. There's a one-year difference between entering kindergarten even though they're essentially the same age. So how do they do?

The authors find that on a wide range of measures—peer problems, emotional problems, socialization, etc.—the 5½-year-old kid does a little bit worse. However, on the inattention/hyperactivity score, the 5½-year-old kid does a lot worse. There's a large discontinuity at January 1, which suggests that the one-year difference in entering kindergarten makes a big difference.

Cowen comments, "I have not yet read the study, but it seems to me this paper, along with some other recent results, does not exactly help the case for preschool..." That may be true, but there are two pretty important caveats to keep in mind:

First, there's no way to tell if the older kids benefit because (a) they're older in absolute terms, or (b) they're older than most of their classmates. The authors claim that "our pattern of results speaks indirectly to the empirical salience of absolute and relative-age mechanisms," but that's a stretch. In the discussion section at the tail end of the paper they briefly say that their findings "are consistent" with an absolute-age mechanism, but that's it. There's nothing in the actual body of the paper that addresses this in any way.

Second, nearly all Danish children attend nurseries and public daycare starting at age one. So even if it turns out there's evidence for an absolute age mechanism, it may only be something specific to the curriculum of kindergarten, not to early schooling in general.

So it's an intriguing paper, but it's not at all clear that it tells us much about the benefits of early daycare/preschool. The authors are keen on a theory that young children benefit from pretend play, and they suggest that kindergarten at age five cuts this period of pretend play too short. That could be, but again, this mostly just argues for delaying the start of structured learning, not against the idea of early preschool. More research, please.