Kevin Drum - April 2011

Multitasking vs. Task Switching

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 2:01 AM EDT

Isn't multitasking a great subject? It must be since I keep coming back to it. Today, Matt Yglesias, who is still (barely) a twenty-something, says that he's long since figured out that true multitasking is impossible (i.e., literally paying attention to multiple things at once), but:

I’m never totally sure what it is that people mean by “multitasking.” Does switching between tasks rapidly count? I do that all the time. A little reading, write a post, respond to some emails, send some tweets, then do it all over again. That seems inherent to the life of the professional blogger. And I do think it’s scrambled my brain a bit, insofar as I find it much harder now to read long books than it was when I was in high school....I think people ought to try to distinguish between switching between tasks (useful as more kinds of tasks are invented) and actually trying to do multiple things simultaneously, which seems to me to be a fool’s errand.

Task switching is obviously a different thing than multitasking, and humans have been doing it for a long time. Anytime you get interrupted, either electronically or in person, you have to switch tasks at least briefly. And the cost of this is that you lose your train of thought and have to get it back when you return to your original task.

This is harder for some things than others. Blogging is obviously tailor made for task switching. Each blog post is a single short thought that doesn't require a ton of concentration to keep in mind. So if the phone rings or someone IMs you, it's not a big deal. Writing computer code, by contrast, is exactly the opposite: it usually involves keeping a complex problem in working memory for a substantial time as you put together a few dozen or hundred lines of code to address it. When I was in the computer biz, programmers complained bitterly whenever they were deeply into a tricky piece of coding and some yahoo product manager (i.e., me) would wander by their cubicle to ask them why they'd put a button in one place instead of another. Poof! Their concentration was broken and they'd have to spend several minutes regaining it after I left. I've done just enough coding myself to understand this state of mind perfectly, and this is no prima donna excuse making. It's absolutely real.

Still, not everything is like that, and I've always thought that although the media onslaught that bathes kids from earliest childhood had obvious drawbacks (most notably a shortening of attention spans), it probably also had advantages. The main one, it seemed to me, was that kids raised this way could probably task switch faster than older people like me. And who knows? In the world of the future, maybe that will be more important than having a long attention span.

But this is what makes the recent research on multitasking so dismal: it turns out that high multitaskers can't task switch faster than others. In fact, they're worse at it. They're worse at everything.

Now, who knows. Maybe experiments in the lab are incomplete. Maybe things will be different for kids who grow up this way from earliest childhood. Maybe. But I doubt it. More likely, critical brain functions are being lost, and nothing is being gained in return. It's kind of grim.

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Yet More Boring Tax Blather

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 1:25 AM EDT

I'm forced to defend my honor again on taxes. But I want to make this fairly brief. I don't have a staff to run the numbers and I don't have access to the details it would take to do a tax exercise with precision. But that probably doesn't matter too much. Basically, I just want to put together a rough proof of concept showing how the kind of tax increases I have in mind to deal with the long-term deficit would (in my ideal world) hit the average family.

So here's what I did. Basically, I took the deficit reductions in the Rivlin-Domenici plan and converted them into one-third spending cuts and two-thirds tax hikes. Then I figured those tax hikes as a percentage of national income, rather than a percentage of GDP, since we're ultimately interested in how much of their income taxpayers will have to pay under my proposal. All of this jibed pretty well with the latest CBO report on the deficit, so I think the numbers are in the right ballpark. In fact, if anything I'm being more aggressive than I need to be.

So here's the way I figure it. In the medium term, we need to let the Bush tax cuts expire, allow the Medicare cuts in ACA to take effect, and cut perhaps another $50-100 billion per year in spending. This will wipe out the primary deficit and then some.

Then, between 2015 and 2030, we need to phase in tax increases that ultimately amount to about 7% of national income. The CBO has a nice table showing how national income is split up between different household income levels, so my task is to divvy up the tax increases so they add up to a total of 7%. Here's how I did it:

The top row shows the share of national income from each quintile. The second row shows how much additional income they'd pay in taxes by the time my full tax hikes were phased in. The poorest don't get hit at all. The 2nd quintile has to pay an additional 2% of their income in taxes. The middle quintile pays an additional 3% of their income. All the way to the top 1%, who pay an additional 12% of their income. All of this adds up to 7% of total national income.

Remember, this is only the tax half of the deficit plan. To make the numbers come out, you'd also need spending cuts amounting to about half of the tax increases. Beyond that, a couple of comments:

  • Conservatives will be aghast that I'm raising the effective tax rate on the richest 1% by 12 percentage points. But the rich have had a helluva ride over the past 30 years: their incomes have skyrocketed and their tax rates have gone down. Now the holiday from history is over. Sorry guys. And since I don't belong to a religion that pretends that higher tax rates on the rich will inevitably produce economic catastrophe, I'm free to simply allocate taxes in a way that's fair and equitable.
  • I'm making no assumptions about how we change the tax code to accomplish this. It might be a combination of income tax rate hikes, payroll taxes, carbon taxes, estate taxes, reductions in tax expenditures, consumption taxes, or anything else. All I'm saying is that after you figure out the incidence of whatever taxes you raise to get to 7% of national income, this is how I'd like to see it distributed.
  • As I suggested before, half the country would pay no more than an additional 3% of their income in taxes, and 80% of the country would pay no more than an additional 5% of their income. And this would be phased in gradually over the course of fifteen years. It's not pain free by any means, but it's not the end of the world either.

No one should take this too seriously. It's not a real proposal, the numbers are back-of-the-envelope, and trying to make plans on a 20-year horizon is a mug's game anyway. However, it does show that if we rein in the deficit with a 2:1 ratio of tax hikes to spending cuts, the tax increases can still be quite manageable.

The alternative, of course, is some pretty savage cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. If conservatives think they can sell this to the public as an alternative to tax increases like mine, more power to them. But I don't think they can. The public, bless their black little hearts, doesn't want program cuts or tax increases, but when they're finally forced to make a decision, as they will be, I think they're more likely to accept tax increases like mine paired with modest program cuts, rather than small (or no) tax increases paired with big cuts. We'll see eventually, I guess.

Mission Continues to Creep in Libya

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 4:32 PM EDT

It's been a busy week in Libya news. First Britain announced that it was sending in some advisors. Then France began pushing for a 1000-person "humanitarian" force to be shipped in to protect aid shipments. A day later France and Italy both joined the advisor brigade. Simultaneously the United States announced it was sending $25 million in "non-lethal aid" to the rebels. And today we got this:

President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft in Libya to improve the precision of low-level attacks on ground targets, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

The first Predator mission since Obama’s go-ahead was flown Thursday but the aircraft — armed with Hellfire missiles — turned back early due to poor weather conditions, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference with Gates....Cartwright did not specify what targets the aborted Predator mission Thursday was intended to strike.

As Adam Weinstein says, what could go wrong?

The Hagiography of Paul Ryan

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 2:33 PM EDT

Matt Miller has gotten a lot of kudos this morning for his column pointing out that "The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit." I don't really read Miller much or know anything about him, but I gather that the reason he's getting a lot of attention for this unremarkable observation is that (a) he's normally a "a mellow, straight-laced guy," but (b) today's column is evidence that "the budget debate has driven him stark, raving mad." (That's Jon Cohn's take.)

Bob Somerby likes the column, but he's annoyed that Miller says he doesn't understand why the rest of the press corps keeps giving Paul Ryan and his congressional colleagues a pass on this. The problem, Somerby says, is that "it's fairly clear that he does understand":

Early in his column, Miller says he doesn’t understand why the press corps won’t criticize Republicans on this point. He doesn’t understand why they present Ryan as “courageous,” as “visionary.” And then, a mere six paragraphs later, Miller shows that he does understand! He says there’s a “meme,” a hunk of “conventional wisdom,” driving the press corps’ conduct. Miller doesn’t explain just what this “meme” is, nor does he explain how it got “established” as conventional wisdom. But presumably, he is referring to the Standard Press Novel in which Republican budget cutters like Ryan are inevitably said to be “courageous,” “bold” and “honest”—in which their contradictions and errors, no matter how severe, end up on the cutting-room floor.

These “memes” have been ruling much of our “journalism” for a good many years. To see this Standard Press Novel at work, just read through Jeff Zeleny’s “Political Memo” in today’s New York Times.

Hmmm. Yes. The Zeleny hagiography is worth reading. If you don't feel like instantly canonizing Ryan after you're done, you just haven't read it closely enough. You'd barely know the guy is even a politician, let alone a standard issue conservative ideologue pandering to his base at every opportunity and waving around all the usual bogus Heritage Foundation crap that all the rest of them do. That piece of the Paul Ryan Story just isn't part of the narrative.

Skin in the Game

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 1:11 PM EDT

Paul Krugman points out that healthcare "consumers" aren't really consumers at all in the traditional sense of the word:

Medical care is an area in which crucial decisions — life and death decisions — must be made; yet making those decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge; and often those decisions must also be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.

....The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just people selling services to consumers of health care — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.

But Niklas Blanchard objects that not all of medicine is practiced under life-and-death circumstances:

The actual truth of the matter is that the bulk of medical spending of the average person does not involve death at all...just nagging, often temporary, quality of life issues. In fact, outpatient care (which includes routine and sick visits to the doctor and same-day hospital visits), drugs and non-durables (which includes things like wheelchairs and other medical supplies), and administration account for ~2/3rds of all medical spending in the US.

This is true, but I think it still underestimates just how much knowledge consumers can bring to bear on medical decisions. Take me. By coincidence, the last few months have been absolutely stuffed with visits to the medical-dental-industrial complex. My doctors keep getting worried about things and insisting that I should have some test or other done. On Monday I'll have yet another — easily the most disagreeable of the lot — and I fully expect that it will show exactly the same thing as all the others: nothing. This has collectively cost thousands of dollars and annoyed me endlessly, especially since I've been certain the entire time that there was nothing wrong with me.

Of course, the fact that I'm certain there's nothing wrong with me doesn't mean there's actually nothing wrong with me. I don't know squat about medicine, after all, and a few days on the internet isn't really going to make me any more qualified to decide if I ought to get a followup ultrasound to check out those spots on my gall bladder. None of this has been life and death, and I wasn't under any special pressure to figure out what to do, but that made no difference. As a practical matter, getting a second opinion would have been more expensive than just having the tests done, and trying to otherwise second guess my doctor would have been pretty stupid.

I think there are plainly some areas where forcing people to think harder about medical care (i.e., asking them to fork over some of their own money) can make sense. But it has to be done smartly, since the impact of foregone medical care is often just higher expenses down the road. As an example, we might very well be better off if we not only didn't charge copays for statins and blood pressure meds but actually paid people to take them. They're that cheap and effective, and the bigger problem here isn't overuse, it's getting people to take the damn things when they're told to.

So yes: let's work on incentives, at both the patient, doctor, hospital, and insurance level. But I don't think we should kid ourselves into thinking that this will affect two-thirds of medical care. More likely, it's something like ten or twenty percent. For the rest, like it or not, we just have to follow our doctor's advice.

The Annoying Hypocrisy Trope

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Gregg Easterbrook:

Obama said last year that itemized deductions for the wealthy should be phased out — then on his own tax return, claimed a huge itemized deduction. Until those who advocate higher taxes for the well-off practice what they preach, the national debt situation may only get worse.

This is one of the most annoying tropes in existence, on both the left and the right. The point of laws is to provide a level playing field, and no one is a hypocrite for following existing law even if they think it should be changed. That goes for congressmen who accept earmarks even though they think earmarks should be banned, it goes for drivers who park for free on city streets even though they think parking meters should be installed, and it goes for rich people who pay taxes at the current rate even though they think that rate is too low.

No one is obligated to be a sucker. The whole point of taxation is that it's a collective enterprise: I'm willing to pay my taxes for the common good as long as everyone else is doing it too. But until then, there's no reason that I should impoverish myself (or my constituents) while everyone else is merrily taking full advantage of current law. Fairness matters, and that ain't fair.

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How Much Do You Multitask?

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 1:42 AM EDT

After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

The reason I'm curious is because I feel like I'm sort of on the extreme non-multitasking end of the spectrum. I'm as good as the next guy at juggling a long task list (at least, I was back when I had a job where I had a long task list), but that didn't mean I multitasked. I was just fairly diligent about spending time on things I had to get done. And of course, I fiddle around checking email or looking at my Twitter feed as much as anyone.

But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.

So what about you? What kinds of things do you feel like you can multitask? What kinds of things demand quiet time? And how confident are you that when you multitask, you're doing it effectively?

The Semantics of Taxes

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 10:22 PM EDT

Solving our long-term deficit problem will require both spending restraint (mainly in healthcare) as well as tax hikes. I've suggested a couple of times this week that in addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the tax part of this will amount to an additional 5-6% of GDP over the next couple of decades, which I've described as moderate. Megan McArdle says it's anything but:

A tax hike of 5-6% of GDP doesn't sound like much. But that's a big tax hike if your baseline is 19% — it means that everyone's taxes go up by about a third....These aren't little adjustments. They're huge changes in the overall tax burden, and they will have big effects on peoples lives, and the economy.

This is an example of how our choice of language has a huge impact on how we think about taxes. Raising taxes by a third really does sound like a lot. But let's take a look at what that really means.

Page 65 of this CBO document provides estimates for how much income tax various people pay. The median family gets dinged for 3% of its income. A one-third increase means their income taxes would go up by....1% of their income. That's not so much.

How about a family with twice the median income? That is, someone who's pretty well off. They pay 13% of their income. A one-third increase means their taxes would go by 4% of their income. Again, this is far from catastrophic, especially since we're talking about an increase phasing in over the course of many years.

Are these numbers the right ones? I don't know. It all depends on what happens to spending and on how we decide to allocate the burden of higher taxes. If payroll taxes go up, it might hit the middle class a little harder. If we choose to increase capital gains taxes or institute a financial transaction tax, it would hurt them less. Or maybe we'll choose a consumption tax or a carbon tax instead. Who knows? Still, it's likely that more than three-quarters of all taxpayers would end up paying no more than an additional 5% of their income in taxes. That's not painless, and no one will enjoy it. But over the course of a decade or two it's just not a "huge change."

America's Debt Crisis Suddenly Disappears

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 6:44 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors again demonstrated the power of positive thinking on Wednesday, driving U.S. stocks near three-year highs....After a shaky start to the week, when Standard & Poor's issued a warning on the U.S. credit rating, stocks have rebounded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 186.79 points, or 1.52%, to finish at 12453.54, its highest close in nearly three years.

That was quick! It took a grand total of two days for investors to decide that America is in great shape after all.

So here's the thing: if you had a substantive theory1 about why S&P's announcement on Monday cratered the stock market — any theory at all — it was wrong. It doesn't matter if your causal mechanism was related to treasury rates, our broken political system, the value of the dollar, the price of gold, investor fear of company earnings, or anything else. It was wrong.

Either that or it was right for seven hours on Monday and then produced the precise opposite reaction two days later, even though nothing about America's financial condition has changed. But if you think that's the case, now you have to explain that. Good luck.

1As opposed to a nonsubstantive theory. For example: investors are idiots and they panicked. Or: investors figured that other investors were idiots and would panic, so they decided they'd better sell first. Or something like that.

Chart of the Day: Gay Marriage Goes Mainstream

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 1:57 PM EDT

Nate Silver notes that a CNN poll this week shows 51% of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. And this isn't just an outlier: "This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage." The chart below shows how much things have changed over the past couple of decades. Another few years and support for same-sex marriage will creep above 60%, approximately the number where things usually go fully mainstream. Social conservatives are plainly fighting a losing battle here.

And you know what will happen to American culture after they finally and completely lose? Pretty much nothing.