Kevin Drum - May 2011

Has Politico Upped Its Game?

| Fri May 27, 2011 2:42 PM EDT

In an aside to a post about how dismally ignorant Republican lawmakers are about the debt ceiling and what it means, Jon Chait says:

As a journalistic side note, I should point out that Politico has really upped its game and is now producing far more good political coverage than any other outlet, as the large number of my items keying off Politico stories would testify.

You know, that seems to be true. I'm not a religious reader of Politico, and it's not as if they've never run good stuff in the past, but the ratio of solid pieces to idiotic gossipmongering does seem to have gone up lately. Anyone else notice the same thing?

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Pakistan is Shocked by Reports of Islamists in its Ranks

| Fri May 27, 2011 2:35 PM EDT

Today's Captain Louis Renault Award goes to the Pakistani military:

Embarrassed by the Osama bin Laden raid and by a series of insurgent attacks on high-security sites, top Pakistani military officials are increasingly concerned that their ranks are penetrated by Islamists who are aiding militants in a campaign against the state....Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who like the government has publicly expressed anger over the secret U.S. raid, was so shaken by the discovery of bin Laden that he told U.S. officials in a recent meeting that his first priority was “bringing our house in order,” according to a senior Pakistani intelligence official.

....It is unclear how authentically committed Kayani and other top military leaders are to cleansing their ranks.

You can count me among those who think it's unclear just how authentically committed the Pakistani military is to rooting out Islamists in its ranks. Or that any of its top officials were genuinely "shaken" by the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan. Or that they seriously expect us to believe they plan to do anything at all about this. As long as these guys are helpful — or perceived to be helpful — in Pakistan's neverending struggle against the Great Satan India, they'll have an endless supply of high-level sponsors. When they're no longer helpful, they'll get purged. American desires really have nothing to do with it.

Mindshare vs. Demographics

| Fri May 27, 2011 12:58 PM EDT

Karl Smith notes a Gallup poll showing that half of all respondents think more than 20% of Americans are gay or lesbian:

What makes this interesting to me is not that people are bad at demographics.

It's that I would assume that people’s immediate experience is influencing their estimate of all of America. Yet, 52% of America can’t be experiencing anything like 1 out of every 5 people I know is gay.

So my guess is that most people don’t really get what these numbers mean in terms of their daily life. Of course, to some extent we already knew that but it always interesting to see it come out in actual data.

Yes, people in general are pretty bad with numbers, but I think the real explanation for this is a lot simpler: gay and lesbian issues have been getting a lot of attention in the news lately, and that naturally makes people think they're more numerous than they really are. And personal experience probably has little to do with it. They themselves might know very few gays, but they just figure that's because all the gay people live in San Francisco or Seattle or New York.

The real number, by the way, is around 3-4%.

Free Money for Europe!

| Fri May 27, 2011 12:21 PM EDT

During the financial crisis the Fed made hundreds of billions of dollars available to European central banks in order to facilitate payments that needed to be made in U.S. dollars. But Bloomberg’s Bob Ivry reports that there was much more going on: the Fed was actually making direct — and very secret — loans to European banks at interest rates as low as 0.01%.

The $80 billion initiative, called single-tranche open- market operations, or ST OMO, made 28-day loans from March through December 2008, a period in which confidence in global credit markets collapsed after the Sept. 15 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

....“I wasn’t aware of this program until now,” said U.S. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chaired the House Financial Services Committee in 2008 and co- authored the legislation overhauling financial regulation. The law does require the Fed to release details of any open-market operations undertaken after July 2010, after a two-year lag.

....Credit Suisse’s borrowing peaked at about $45 billion in September 2008....RBS’s use of ST OMO hit about $30 billion in October 2008....Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank’s use peaked at about $20 billion in October 2008, its chart shows.

This is via Felix Salmon, who comments:

Why did the Fed set up a short-term lending program which seems to have been aimed overwhelmingly at European banks? And how does lending $45 billion to Credit Suisse support the flow of credit to U.S. households, in any but the most circuitous manner? It’s probably not worth asking the Fed these questions. But it does seem that the governments of Switzerland, Germany, France, and the UK should all be sending thank-you letters to 33 Liberty Street if they haven’t already done so: it’s entirely possible that the New York Fed bailed out their banks without those governments even knowing about it. That’s just how generous we are, in this country.

It's Gonna Be a Long Primary Season

| Fri May 27, 2011 11:49 AM EDT

A recent tweet from Tim Pawlenty:

Seriously? This is the kind of childishness it takes to compete for the tea party vote these days? "Aren’t there any grown-ups left in the GOP?" asks Mark Kleiman.

School Reform in New Orleans

| Fri May 27, 2011 10:59 AM EDT

Alex Tabarrok links to a New Orleans Times-Picayune story showing the dramatic effects of school reform in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's impressive. Statewide, the number of kids scoring at basic or above went up about five percentage points. In New Orleans it went up around 25 points in the charter-oriented Recovery School District.

Still, be careful. New Orleans has changed a lot in the past six years. The median income has increased from $31,000 to $40,000. The black share of the population has decreased by five percentage points. And the share of residents living in high poverty neighborhoods has gone down by nearly ten percentage points. Those are pretty big changes, and all of them are well known drivers of test scores.

At a glance, the New Orleans test scores look even more impressive than you'd expect when you take those demographic changes into account. But we'll need a considerably more detailed analysis before we can genuinely conclude that their educational reforms have really worked.

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The Future of Solar Power

| Fri May 27, 2011 1:26 AM EDT

GE is bullish on solar power:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

Now all we have to do is find lots of sunny places to put it all.

Hotels and Their Pervs, Revisited

| Thu May 26, 2011 9:30 PM EDT

Let's revisit the issue of pervs in hotel rooms. Why not, after all? It started with a New York Times op-ed by Jacob Tomsky, in which he told us that housekeepers are flashed or otherwise sexually accosted by male guests "more often than you’d think." My off-the-cuff reaction was to suggest a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing: "Do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?" Megan McArdle had an answer:

I travel a lot, and I've had housekeepers walk in on me in various states of undress, especially in hotels with turndown service....Not a big deal for me, but I'm sure it could happen to a male traveler perfectly innocently. So could a wardrobe malfunction — the robes in many hotels are not exactly overgenerous, especially for the burgeoning middle-aged physique of a chairborne warrior.

....Maybe there should be a blacklist for serial offenders, but again, I was a serial offender at a certain hotel in LA with early turndown hours — I assume they didn't report me because, well, women don't usually do that sort of thing.

That's a fair point. Mistakes can happen. Still, I'll bet I know exactly what Megan's reaction was when this happened. It was, more or less, some version of "eek!" And I'll bet the reaction of your average perv isn't "eek!" And I'll bet that your average housekeeper can tell the difference with about 99% accuracy. That's why Megan never got a call from a hotel manager about this. Belle Waring puts it this way:

You, as a woman, know when you’re being flashed vs. when you accidentally walk in on someone who hasn’t heard your knock. Really. Big difference. A man showing you his penis on purpose has a certain way about him, let’s just say. Do I really have to go there?

In other words, if we're willing to take housekeeper reports of perv activity seriously — and we should be — there's a pretty slim chance of blacklisting an innocent man. Still, it's true: mistakes can happen. And if you have made a mistake, this really isn't the type you want to punish with instant banishment.

So how about this instead: Get reported once and you're given a warning. My guess is that if you just forgot to deadbolt the door, you'll never forget again after that. Do it again and you're blacklisted for a couple of years. After all, everyone deserves a chance to turn over a new leaf. So let them back in after two years, but tell them that a third strike means they're banned for good.

If this were the policy in a high-end New York hotel, it might not have much effect. You'd just make up a story about why, say, you'll never stay at the Plaza again. But what about the big chains? Here, for example, is a partial list of Marriott brands:

  • Marriott
  • JW Marriott
  • Marriott Courtyard
  • Residence Inn
  • Fairfield Inn
  • Ritz-Carlton

As a former business traveler, I can tell you that you'd be in trouble if you got your ass kicked out of all of these. There are just too many cases where one of them is by far the most convenient to your destination, or worse, where one of them is literally the only hotel within 20 miles of your destination. Or it's a convention hotel and everyone in your company is staying there. What's more, there's really no way to make up a plausible story about why you refuse to stay at any Marriott property anywhere in the country. So this would be a considerable motivation to stay on good behavior when you're traveling.

So why don't the big hotel chains have policies like this? It's possible there are legal problems, but I imagine a private corporation has very wide latitude about whom it serves and whom it doesn't as long as it has good evidence that it's not discriminating based on age, race, ethnicity, etc. Beyond that there are practical problems: to effectively ban someone you need more than just a name. I'd be plenty annoyed if some skeev named Kevin Drum got banned by Marriott and I ended up having to prove I wasn't him every time I made a reservation. But hotels routinely take credit card numbers and driver's licenses, and those could be used to prevent ID mismatches. That's not enough to make it impossible to evade a blacklist, but it would make it pretty difficult.

So....why not? Are there other good reasons that this would be unwise or unworkable? There might be. Seems worth thinking about, though. Big hotel chains are public companies that are susceptible to public pressure, and I'll bet most of them already ban guests who trash rooms or otherwise cause them trouble. So they know how to do this. Why not do it to give their housekeepers a decent working environment too?

The Graying of America

| Thu May 26, 2011 5:56 PM EDT

Will Wilkinson, in a post that sadly fails to recognize the merits of means testing Medicare after death instead of before, also says this:

I would add: that nearly a third of the voting public is 65 or older does not quite capture the overwhelming electoral heft of seniors. Retirees are disproportionately likely to actually show up at the polls. Moreover, the interests of seniors are more unified than those of younger voters....America's silver foxes constitute a more or less consolidated force fighting for the protection of old-age entitlements.

I was all ready to make a point about this, but then I looked up the numbers and they aren't nearly as bad as Will thinks. According to the Census Bureau, the 65+ crowd accounts for about 17% of the voting-age population. And according to the 2008 exit polls, that same group accounts for about 16% of the total votes cast. I'm surprised at this, but it appears that not only are America's seniors not that huge a voting bloc, but they don't really vote in extra big proportions either.

(And my original point? I was just going to say that things are worse than Will thinks, because once you hit 55 or so you start to realize that retirement is looming and you start voting as if you're 65 already. And the 55+ share is obviously even bigger than the 65+ share. However, it turns out that the 55+ share comes to about a third of the population, so it's no worse than Will thinks after all. It's merely as bad.)

(And what is it he doesn't get about the benefit of means testing Medicare after death instead of before? I wasn't planning to write another post on this subject since it obviously has no political feasibility, but maybe I will over the weekend. Sometimes a little bit of blue-sky nattering is a good way of exercising the brain cells.)

Your Dental Hygienist Questions Answered!

| Thu May 26, 2011 2:31 PM EDT

Earlier this morning we considered the burning question of whether regulation of dental hygienists has contibuted to an increase in income inequality. Before I staked out a position on this I wanted to know if hygienist regulation had increased over time, but sadly, uncredentialed proles like me are denied access to the relevant academic paper unless we fork over $5, thus transferring wealth from me to the economics profession and increasing income inequality along the way. Luckily, reader JR bravely defied the relevant IP laws and sent me a copy. So now I have an answer for you.

The specific question at hand is whether hygienists are increasingly being required to work for dentists, which would decrease their earning power and increase the profits of dental practices owned by wealthy dentists. The answer is no. From the paper:

Until 1988, when Colorado first allowed hygienists to practice without the direct supervision of a dentist, hygienists have been required to work for or be under the direction of a dentist. Since that time, seven states have allowed hygienists to be self-employed without the direct oversight of a dentist.

....In order to show the growth in hygienists’ autonomy over time, in Figure 1 we develop and show a box-and-whisker graphic analysis of state regulation, which gives the mean and spread of the regulation of hygienists over the period 2001–2007. Panel A shows the overall ranking of dental hygienists’ professional practice environment that is allowed by statute or legal rulings.

This is followed by lots of Greek letter math that no sane person would try to understand. However, charts are easy to understand, so I've helpfully reproduced Panel A on the right, adding a bright red arrow showing the increase in hygienist autonomy over the past decade. The basic shape of things is clear: despite pushback from the dental profession, over the past couple of decades hygienists have been allowed to perform more and more tasks and have been unshackled entirely from the dental profession in seven states. This is (probably) a triumph of improved public policy and a counterweight to growing income inequality. So now you know.