• Graphic of the Day: Hospital Infections


    UPDATE: This chart appears to be completely wrong. Apologies. More details here.

    Via Chris Bodenner, this graphic compares fatal hospital infections in the U.S. to those in Europe. This might disturb you at first, but remember: the free market is always right, so clearly we’ve collectively made a rational choice here. We’ve decided that although our healthcare costs are far higher than in Europe, this is worth it in return for far higher death rates from hospital infections. Best healthcare in the world, baby!

    More graphic at the link.

  • The Economy and World War II


    I’m curious about something. Conservatives are forever reminding us liberals that the New Deal didn’t get us out of the Great Depression. It was World War II that got us out of the Great Depression. And roughly speaking, that’s true enough.

    So why, then, isn’t that a good model for getting us out of our current slump? WWII featured five years with federal deficits above 10% of GDP, three of which were above 20% of GDP. And although WWII might have been a good thing for global freedom, all that spending was for war materiel that was completely useless to the U.S. economy. If we repeated this today, we could do better than that even if half the stimulus spending was meaningless makework.

    So what’s the deal? Did WWII rescue the American economy or not? And if it did, what’s the argument for not trying it again, but without the war?

  • The AT&T Merger and Overseas Travelers


    My position on the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile (which the Justice Department has decided to fight) is aggressively wishy-washy. On the one hand, maybe the mobile phone market is sort of a natural duopoly given the huge capital costs of building out a good nationwide network. Then again, maybe having three or four companies really does provide more competition, stronger price pressure, and increased innovation. I just haven’t studied this enough to know. Still, Felix Salmon makes an interesting point here:

    One thing which fascinates me is the way in which neither the complaint nor the press release makes any mention of the fact that the proposed deal would give the merged company substantially all of the market in GSM cellphones — the only ones which work in most of the rest of the world. Americans who travel internationally pretty much have to get their cellphone service from one of these two providers — and they’re highly sensitive to exorbitant international roaming fees. Which would almost certainly go up in the event of this merger.

    Now, you could argue that this is actually a pretty small segment of the market. Maybe Felix cares about it, but the number of Americans who travel abroad frequently and need a universal phone isn’t that large. So it’s not something the Justice Department should be worrying about.

    Still, it’s an interesting observation — though I’d note that dual-mode phones are available from Verizon and others who use CDMA networks in the U.S., and current international roaming fees are so outrageously high from all U.S. carriers that it’s hard to imagine them going up much more with or without a merger. But maybe that just shows a lack of imagination on my part. Those of you who travel overseas frequently and know more about this should feel free to school me in comments.

  • Why Do Conservatives Get a Pass?


    Rick Perry would like to repeal the 16th and 17th Amendments, hates the New Deal, thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and global warming is a gigantic hoax, and would pretty much like to roll back America’s entire social-welfare edifice “from housing to public television, from the environment to art, from education to medical care, from public transportation to food, and beyond.” Ruth Marcus is appalled:

    Whoa! These are not mainstream Republican views—at least, not any Republican mainstream post-Goldwater and pre-Tea Party. Even Ronald Reagan, who had once criticized Social Security and Medicare, was backing away from those positions by the 1980 presidential campaign.

    …Perry’s ideas range from wrongheaded to terrifying.…The subtitle of Perry’s book is “Our Fight to Save America from Washington.” Reading it summons the image of another, urgent fight: saving America from Rick Perry.

    Here’s what gets me. Perry’s views are getting denounced by all the usual lefty suspects but not much by anyone else. And the reason for this is something very odd: In modern America, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. They’re just not taken seriously, in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. It’s almost like everyone accepts this kind of stuff as a kind of religious liturgy, repeated regularly with no real meaning behind it. They’re just the words you use to prove to the base that you’re really one of them.

    Why is this? I’m not quite sure what the left-wing equivalent of this would be, but it would be something along the lines of Hillary Clinton writing a book that proposed repealing the 2nd Amendment and adding one that banned hate speech; limiting defense spending to 2 percent of GDP; raising the top marginal tax rate back to 90 percent on millionaires and 100 percent on anything above, say, $10 million; instituting British-style national health care; and spending half a trillion dollars on new programs for universal preschool, two-year paid leaves for new parents, and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. But in real life, Dennis Kucinich wouldn’t support a platform like this, let alone a front-runner for the presidential nomination. And if one did, he or she would be instantly tarred as an insane nutball and would never see the business end of a TV camera again.

    But when Republicans say the mirror image of stuff like this, it just gets a shrug. Sure, Perry apparently wants to roll things back to about 1900 or so. But hey—it’s just a way of firing up the troops. Nothing to be taken seriously.

    But why not?

  • A Quick Look at How Our Kids Are Doing


    I’m pretty sure I’ve posted this before in one form or another, and I’m not sure what prompted me to do it again, but every once in a while I feel the urge to present some raw data about how our kids are doing in school. The charts below are taken directly from the most recent NAEP report card, generally viewed as the “gold standard” among measures of student achievement. Here are the results among eighth-graders over the past 20 years in reading:

    • Overall scores are up.
    • White scores are up.
    • Black scores are up.
    • Hispanic scores are up.

    And for math:

    • Overall scores are way up.
    • White scores are way up.
    • Black scores are way up.
    • Hispanic scores are way up.

    Obviously it would be nice to be doing even better. It would be nice if black and Hispanic scores were catching up faster. We still have plenty of lousy schools that we should be working hard to improve. And achievement results among twelfth-graders are more ambiguous. School reform is an important topic and worth spending a lot of time on.

    Still, keep these basic results in the back of your minds. Contrary to widespread opinion, our children are doing better today than they were 20 years ago. We’re making progress, not falling ever further behind.

  • Stimulus Spending and the Unemployed


    Tyler Cowen links to a pair of papers that conclude that only 42 percent of the workers hired using stimulus funds came from the ranks of the unemployed. The rest came from other organizations or were hired straight out of school. Tyler concludes that this means the stimulus worked poorly:

    One major problem with ARRA was not the crowding out of financial capital but rather the crowding out of labor.…You can tell a story about how hiring the already employed opened up other jobs for the unemployed, but it’s just that—a story. I don’t think it is what happened in most cases, rather firms ended up getting by with fewer workers.

    There’s also evidence of government funds chasing after the same set of skilled and already busy firms. For at least a third of the surveyed firms receiving stimulus funds, their experience failed to fit important aspects of the Keynesian model.

    This paper goes a long way toward explaining why fiscal stimulus usually doesn’t have such a great “bang for the buck.” It raises the question of whether as “twice as big” stimulus really would have been enough. Must it now be four times as big?

    Maybe this is just my priors speaking, but I’d draw the exact opposite conclusion from this. First of all, a lot of stimulus spending went to states, where it was explicitly used to avoid laying off workers. That doesn’t take anyone off the unemployment rolls, but it certainly keeps unemployment from getting worse. Second, no one expected ARRA to hire solely from the ranks of the unemployed. That’s just not feasible, so these results hardly seem like a surprise to me. In fact, they seem pretty good. Third, yes, it’s “just a story” that firms whose workers were hired away filled some of those new openings with the unemployed. But far from being some kind of weird fairy tale, it seems almost inevitable that this is partly true. And if even a third of those jobs were filled this way, it means nearly two-thirds of ARRA’s total hiring (direct and indirect) was among the unemployed. And that’s not even counting the effect of the increased spending from these newly hired workers that drives hiring in other firms

    And fourth, my intuition says this result is an excellent argument that the stimulus should have been twice as big. Think of it this way. If the stimulus had been very small—say, $50,000—what would have happened? Well, if you could hire only one person, you’d almost certainly hire someone who was already working. There’d be lots of people to choose from, and it’s a safer bet. At some point, though, you start to run out of good choices, and the currently employed are too expensive. So as the stimulus gets bigger you start to hire some of the best of the unemployed. Now make the stimulus super big, and cherry picking from the ranks of workers has played out almost completely. If 40 percent of the direct hires from the original ARRA spending were unemployed, I’d expect that something like 70 to 80 percent of the hires from a second trillion dollars of ARRA to be unemployed. What’s more, all the newly employed people from that extra trillion would have created enough additional demand to benefit the rest of the economy as well.

    Obviously, my intuition could be wrong. But overall, these results actually seem pretty positive to me. Probably at least half of ARRA’s spending ended up in the hands of the unemployed, and if it had been bigger the vast bulk would have ended up in the hands of the unemployed. It’s too bad we’re not willing to try this out in real life to find out who’s right.

  • Egghead Predicts: Obama a Shoo-in For 2012


    Remember all those models that say presidential elections are won or lost based on the economy? The ones that increasingly make Barack Obama look like a doomed one-termer? Well, here’s some good news for the Obama camp: a different model, from American University professor Allan Lichtman, “whose election formula has correctly called every president since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election,” says Obama is a shoo-in.

    So how does that work? Well, Lichtman’s model is based on 13 binary keys, and although Obama loses both of the keys that are based on economic performance, he wins nine others. Since any score of seven or more means the incumbent party wins reelection, Obama should prevail easily no matter who the Republicans nominate.

    Is this right? Beats me. But you can’t argue with seven successful predictions in a row, can you? Here are the nine keys that go in Obama’s favor: (1) no primary challenge, (2) he’s a sitting president, (3) no third-party challenge, (4) major policy changes enacted (healthcare and stimulus), (5) no social unrest, (6) no scandal, (7) no foreign policy debacles, (8) at least one big foreign policy success (killing bin Laden), and (9) no opponent with lots of charisma.

    For what it’s worth, you might plausibly argue with #4 on the grounds that both of these policy changes have been unpopular; possibly with #8 on the grounds that this isn’t a big, lasting success (something that Lichtman has apparently changed his mind about over the past month); and possibly with #9 on the grounds that Rick Perry could turn out to be a pretty charismatic candidate. And you might argue that the economy is now looking so bad that it deserves more than one point.

    Still, Lichtman is the expert, and he says, “Even if I am being conservative, I don’t see how Obama can lose.” So there you go.

    POSTSCRIPT: A bit of googling shows that Lichtman has been forecasting an Obama win since March of last year. So I guess this is nothing new. Still interesting, though.

  • The Hypocrisy Trope, Yet Again


    Earlier today, after noting that the federal government can borrow money at negative interest rates, I wrote that only an idiot turns down free money. The Washington Examiner’s Kevin Glass tweets a response:

    That reminds me: the hypocrisy allegations lobbed at Republican governors who accept money from federal programs they oppose are pretty shoddy. As I said last year about the stimulus act, “Once the bill has been passed and the money is going to be spent whether you like it or not, there’s nothing wrong with getting your fair share of the pie.” And then, again, a few months ago:

    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.

    But I guess you can’t say this too often! So today I’ll go even further. You can fight tooth and nail against legislation that provides some benefit or another, but once the bill is passed and taxpayers from your state are funding it whether they like it or not, it would be serious malfeasance not to make sure your state gets its share of the goodies. What’s more, this remains true even if you continue to oppose the program. Republican governors who refuse to set up healthcare exchanges because they oppose the Affordable Care Act, for example, aren’t being principled, they’re being negligent. They owe it to their state’s residents to provide them with the services they’re paying taxes for, even if they didn’t want those services created in the first place.

    There are exceptions, of course. If you believe that some federal program isn’t just a bad idea, but a moral wrong, or that it imposes unreasonable requirements on your state, then you might be justified in turning down a few specific kinds of federal handout. But those are pretty rare occurrences.

  • The Death of Watermelon


    My mother was just on the phone complaining that it’s impossible to find anything other than seedless watermelons these days. Is this true? As a summertime public service to her and all the rest of my melon-loving readers, here is Jane Black’s investigative reporting on this vital issue in the Washington Post last year:

    According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelons sold in grocery stores have seeds, down from 42 percent in 2003. In California and the mid-South, home to the country’s biggest watermelon farms, the latest figures are 8 and 13 percent, respectively. The numbers seem destined to tumble. Recently developed hybrids do not need seeded melons for pollination — more on that later — which liberates farmers from growing melons with spit-worthy seeds.

    ….I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of seeded, seedless, yellow and the newly popular “personal” watermelons from Melissa’s Produce and one seeded melon from a local farmers market. The local melon was the runaway favorite….The runner-up was a seedless personal melon, which was sweet and refreshing but lacked the concentrated flavor of the local melon. Next came the seedless red and yellow melons, which were inoffensive but whose primary asset was being cold on an August afternoon. Bringing up the rear was the California seeded melon, which was mealy and tasteless with more seeds than flesh, though in this case that wasn’t a bad thing.

    So there you have it. Not only is seeded watermelon hard to find, but it’s hardest to find here in California. My mother is right. On the other hand, if the California seeded melons are as bad as Black says, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Still, that just leads to another question: why are California seeded watermelons so terrible?

    I don’t know, and since I don’t like watermelon in the first place, I don’t have much incentive to find out. But my mother will thank you if you provide an answer in comments.

  • Public Works Are a Better Idea Than a Payroll Tax Holiday


    Bruce Bartlett lists several reasons why a payroll tax holiday might not be such a great idea. Here are the first two:

    First, the tax cut only helps those with jobs. While many have low wages and undoubtedly are spending all their additional cash flow, those with the greatest need and most likely to spend any additional income are the unemployed.

    Second, the payroll tax cut helps many workers who have no need for it and will only pocket the tax savings.

    Yep. I’ve never had a problem with payroll tax cuts being used to pay off debt instead of being used to buy more stuff. After all, weak demand isn’t our only economic problem. Debt overhang is a big problem too, and reducing it is helpful for our long-term recovery. The problem is that a payroll tax cut is weakly targeted for both spending and debt reduction. Poor people, who are the most likely to spend the money, pay little or no payroll tax in the first place. And richer people, who are the most likely to save it, don’t usually have any big debt problems. Most of the benefit of a payroll tax cut, therefore, is limited to a smallish segment of the public that’s (a) rich enough to get a significant amount from a payroll tax holiday but (b) poor enough to either spend it all or use it to pay down debt. I don’t know how big that segment is, but probably not more than a quarter or a third of the population. Much the same is true of other tax cuts.

    So what to do? Bartlett again:

    In my view, the $110 billion cost of the one-year Social Security tax cut would have been far better spent on measures that would actively raise spending in the economy. Public works would be the best way of doing that. Under current economic conditions, all tax cuts are essentially passive and do almost nothing to increase aggregate demand or economic output.

    Sign me up! The only question is, can we get any Republicans to sign up too?

  • Is Flood Insurance Stupid?


    Matt Yglesias thinks that offering flood insurance to people who build houses in floodplains is idiotic:

    The National Flood Insurance Program [NFIP] offers sub-market insurance rates to people who want to build houses in very flood prone areas. It’d be as if we had a special program to offer subsidized health insurance to people who refuse to wear seatbelts. Sounds nuts? And yet there it is.

    Naturally, I was thinking about this over the past few days as Hurricane Irene was powering its way north, and I think the words we choose have an important effect on how we think about this stuff. If you call it “subsidized” flood insurance, it sounds like a boondoggle for morons. But what if you simply think of it as a safety net program for rare but unavoidable natural disasters? Then it doesn’t sound so bad.

    And that’s probably the right way to think about it. There are a lot of floodplains in America, many of them in places that are economically important. If you think we should depopulate all of them, that’s one thing. But assuming you don’t think that, then there has to be some way to handle widespread flood damage when it occurs. Unfortunately, the private sector won’t do it for the same reason the private sector won’t offer individual health coverage to most people. Don Taylor explains:

    Private companies could not compel the purchase of their product absent legislation, so would face tremendous adverse selection problems and/or no one buying their insurance. Into this situation stepped the federal government in 1968, and with a variety of modifications, it has remained the only flood insurance provider in the United States for the past four-plus decades.

    NFIP can compel the purchase of insurance. If you live in a designated floodplain, you have an individual mandate to purchase flood insurance. And most of it isn’t subsidized. Taylor again: “Around 80% of covered properties are assessed full-risk premiums based on Army Corps of Engineers models; the other 20% have subsidized premiums because the covered dwelling was built prior to the identification of SFHAs in 1974.”

    This doesn’t eliminate the question of whether federal flood insurance is a good idea, whether any of it should be subsidized, or whether the public/private nature of NFIP is a good idea. But it does suggest that NFIP isn’t flatly nuts. There are millions of dwellings currently insured for flood damage in over 20,000 towns and cities. There’s just no way to take a wrecker to all those houses and raze all those towns. That means insurance has to be available to them, and the only entity capable of spreading the risk widely enough to make flood insurance efficient is the federal government. Thus NFIP.

  • Only An Idiot Turns Down Free Money


    Some decisions are hard and some decisions are easy. When someone offers you a thousand dollars on the condition that you pay back $900 in seven years, that’s one of the easy ones. But as Ezra Klein writes today, that’s the position we’re in right now. The federal government’s long-term borrowing rate is -0.34%:

    Here’s what this means: If we can think of any investments we can make over the next seven years that have a return of zero percent — yes, you read that right — or more, it would be foolish not to borrow this money and make them.

    ….Our infrastructure is crumbling, and we know we’ll have to rebuild it in the coming years. Why do it later, when it will cost us more and we very likely won’t have massive unemployment in the construction sector, as opposed to now, when the market will pay us to invest in our infrastructure and we have an unemployment crisis to address?

    ….Everyone knows we have worthwhile investments to make. The real reason we won’t take advantage of this remarkable opportunity is ideology: Republicans argue that deficits are the only thing that matters for our recovery — unless anyone attempts to close them through tax increases, and then tax rates are the only thing that matters for our recovery. And Democrats have stopped even attempting to challenge them.

    It’s true that this money still has to be paid back, and principal repayments are as real as interest costs. Still, we’re being offered free money. Only an idiot would turn it down.

  • No Expertise Please, We’re Republicans


    Jonah Goldberg isn’t happy about all the attention some of us pay to so-called experts:

    The cult of experts has acolytes in all ideological camps, but its most institutionalized following is on the left. The left needs to believe in the authority of experts because without that authority, almost no economic intervention can be justified. If you concede that you have no idea whether your remedy will work, it’s going to be hard to sell it to the patient. Market-based ideologies don’t have that problem because markets expect events in ways experts never can.

    No president since Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt has been more enamored with the cult of expertise than Obama. That none of his economic predictions have panned out is not surprising. What is surprising is that so many people are surprised.

    What’s remarkable about this column is that Goldberg isn’t disparaging a particular kind of expertise or a particular kind of bias he finds endemic. His specific shots are limited to economists and climate scientists, but the column is basically a takedown of all expertise. (Which he conflates with prediction, but never mind.) In the conservative world Goldberg prefers, it’s apparently much better to ignore the experts and just let events unfold.

    Next week’s column will undoubtedly be an attack on liberals for claiming that Republicans are anti-science — with no sense of irony at all. I can’t wait.

  • Science and Human Life


    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry on the great abortion question of our time:

    The biological, moral and legal status of the unborn child isn’t a question of metaphysics.

    Whether life begins at conception isn’t a matter of religious faith, it’s a scientific question, and the answer isn’t very hard. Of course, you can choose to disbelieve it, just like you can choose to not to believe that CO2 molecules redirect infrared variations.

    Now, science isn’t a moral guide. The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn’t necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection. But again, resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.

    It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.

    I’m afraid there’s some semantic hairsplitting going on here. Of course a fetus is life; so is a human egg, and so is a human sperm. That’s never been at issue. But in the context of abortion, life is just shorthand for human life, and whether a blastocyst or a fetus qualifies as human is very much a religious and metaphysical question. It’s certainly not a scientific one.

    The list of criteria for being a person endowed with rights starts with being a human being. Those of us in the pro-choice camp don’t believe that the mere presence of cellular machinery and a human genome makes one a human being. Those in the pro-life camp do — though I’d note that for many of them, their actions don’t back up this professed belief.1 But whichever camp you’re in, this isn’t a question that science can answer. Pretending otherwise is little more than a tawdry rhetorical trick designed to give your arguments an authority they haven’t earned.

    1If you really, truly believe that a fertilized egg is a human life, your opposition to abortion will be absolute with the sole exception of abortion that’s necessary to save a mother’s life. You won’t support exceptions for rape and incest any more than you’d allow the killing of a child who was the product of rape or incest. You’ll also oppose fertility treatments, which routinely create and destroy more fertilized eggs than they use.

    Some pro-lifers do indeed feel this way. But many don’t. At a visceral level, these semi-opposers obviously have an aversion to abortion that stems from some source other than a belief that human life begins at conception.

  • Healthcare Reform Doing Both Better and Worse


    According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, healthcare reform is getting steadily more popular among Republicans and steadily less popular among Democrats. Weird, huh? But as the chart below shows, the popularity of ACA peaked among Dems in January and then started declining, while it bottomed out among Republicans in March and then started rising. Using advanced mathematical techniques, I can forecast that ACA will be equally popular among both Democrats and Republicans in March 2012:

    Just kidding, of course. But I think this goes to show what happens when something falls out of public view. Roughly speaking, I think that ACA has been replaced on the cable shoutfest circuit with other topics, which means it’s becoming less of a tribal totem. So you no longer say you hate it just because you’re a Republican and Fox News says you’re supposed to hate it. You only say you hate it if you really do. Ditto in reverse for Democrats. It’s becoming less of a culture war issue and more a simple question of whether it provides you any benefits that you care about. And on that score, it’s always been better for conservatives than they think (they get their doughnut hole removed just like everyone else) and worse for liberals than they think (most of them won’t really see much difference in their healthcare).

    This immediate trend won’t keep up (the 2012 campaign is likely to put ACA back on the partisan front burner), but this kind of convergence is still pretty likely over the long term. After all, is there much of a partisan split these days about whether you like Medicare or not?

  • Quote of the Day: Rick Perry Says RTFM


    From Rick Perry, doubling down on the mountain of crazy in his book, Fed Up!:

    I haven’t backed off anything in my book. Read the book again, get it right. Next question.

    Hoo boy. There’s some stuff in that book that any sane presidential candidate would be deftly trying to “clarify” at every opportunity. I guess Perry is choosing another path. Should be fun.

  • We’ve Got a Tough Decade Ahead


    Tyler Cowen points us today to a set of predictions from Michael Pettis that he thinks are “mostly correct.” Most relate to China, which Pettis thinks is going to enounter some heavy economic weather in the near future, and I don’t disagree. But he also has some things to say about Europe. Here’s his forecast for Germany:

    Germany will stubbornly (and foolishly) refuse to bear its share of the burden of the European adjustment, and the subsequent retaliation by the deficit countries will cause German growth to drop to zero or negative for many years.

    ….If Germany does not take radical steps to push its current account surplus into deficit, the brunt of the European adjustment will fall on the deficit countries with a sharp decrease in domestic demand….For one or two years the deficit countries will try to bear the full brunt of the adjustment while Germany scolds and cajoles from the side. Eventually they will be unable politically to accept the necessary high unemployment and they will intervene in trade – almost certainly by abandoning the euro and devaluing. In that case they automatically push the brunt of the adjustment onto the surplus countries, i.e. Germany, and German unemployment will rise. I don’t know how soon this will happen, but remember that in global demand contractions it is the surplus countries who always suffer the most. I don’t see why this time will be any different.

    Pettis has been bearish on the euro for a long time, and he’s even more bearish now. Here’s a bit more detail on his prediction that the eurozone is going to crack up:

    Spain will leave the euro and will be forced to restructure its debt within three or four years. So will Greece, Portugal, Ireland and possibly even Italy and Belgium.

    …The only strategies by which Spain can regain competitiveness are either to deflate and force down wages, which will hurt workers and small businesses, or to leave the euro and devalue. Given the large share of vote workers have, the former strategy will not last long. But of course once Spain leaves the euro and devalues, its external debt will soar. Debt restructuring and forgiveness is almost inevitable.

    I don’t know if Pettis is right, but this sounds all too plausible to me. Leaving the euro seems impossible for a number of reasons, but the fiscal integration necessary to save the euro seems impossible too. That’s also Wolfgang Münchau’s take: “While I cannot see how Greece or Italy can remain in the eurozone indefinitely without a eurobond, I find it equally hard to see Germany, Finland and the Netherlands agreeing to it.” So I guess it’s a question of which one turns out to be more impossible. Or, perhaps, a question of which faction caves first.

    If you held a gun to my head and forced me to guess, I actually think I’d guess that a eurobond and a massive bailout of the PIIGS is more likely than a breakup of the eurozone. At the same time, it’s easy to be too complacent about the integration of Europe states over the past 65 years. They’re not likely to go to war against each other anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that all the old animosities are gone. They’re just lurking below the surface, and a prolonged crisis could create a climate of public opinion that simply doesn’t allow for a sensible solution. When the eventual crisis comes, and it’s not possible to shove it any further into the future, the euro may not survive

  • Why College Costs so Much


    Benjamin Ginsberg writes in the Washington Monthly about one reason that the cost of attending university has skyrocketed over the past few decades:

    Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers.

    ….In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 fulltime faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as “executive, administrative and managerial employees.” Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as “other professional.”

    Faculty growth has been roughly in line with growth in enrollment, which Ginsberg pegs at 50% over the past four decades. By contrast, support staff of various kinds has increased by nearly 500,000, a growth rate of 182%.

    There’s more at the link, including Ginsberg’s take on why this is a bad trend even aside from all the money it costs. Maybe we need fewer adjunct professors and more adjunct administrators?

  • Who You Gonna Believe?


    Soon-to-be colleague Adam Serwer writes today about a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In a word, it sucks:

    It may seem shocking just how unreliable your eyes can be. The ruling cites studies that showed eyewitnesses picking the wrong person out of a lineup as often as they picked the right one, along with another study showing that even when witnesses are told the person might not be in the lineup, they’ll choose an innocent person about a third of the time. The reason is that our memories may seem vivid, they’re often not as accurate as we think they are. While lineups are constructed of similar looking individuals precisely to force the witness to think strongly about what they remember, this may result in witnesses unconsciously conforming their memory to the available choices.

    The most complex part of eyewitness misidentification, though, is the fact that people who wrongly identify someone are often really confident they’ve made the right choice — and that confidence is persuasive in court.

    This evidence has been around for decades, and it’s common knowledge throughout the legal profession. Everyone knows about it, including prosecutors, though they’ll generally refuse to acknowledge it for obvious reasons. The fact is that even under ideal conditions most of us are lousy at IDing people, and under the conditions of most crime scenes we’re a whole lot worse. There are several things that are known to make eyewitness identification less reliable, and all or most of them are usually in play when you’re watching a crime unfold:

    • The action is often far away.
    • It’s often dark and the light is bad.
    • There’s lots of tension and your adrenaline is pumping.
    • Everything happens quickly.
    • The culprits often belong to a different ethnic group than the eyewitness, and we’re all much worse at distinguishing between people of a different race.

    There’s more, but you get the idea. As Adam says, though, this makes little difference to the witnesses themselves. Just as everyone thinks they’re a great driver, just about everyone thinks they’re great at remembering faces, too, even if they did get only a brief look in dim light from 50 feet away.

    This isn’t a topic I’ve spent a ton of time on, but knowing the basics, and knowing just how widely appreciated this stuff is in the criminal justice profession, I’ve always been a little surprised that the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in with some new guidelines on the use of eyewitness identification. I’m not talking about the usual stuff, like insisting that police conduct lineups properly, but something deeper: guidelines about how eyewitness testimony can be used in court, how the circumstances have to be disclosed, what kind of instructions the jury should get, and so forth. This is about as fundamental a part of getting a fair trial as there is. Perhaps this New Jersey decision is the first step in making this happen.

  • The Return of Alan Krueger


    President Obama plans to nominate Alan Krueger to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors today, taking over from Christina Romer, who held the position for the first two years of his presidency, and Austan Goolsbee, who held it until last month. Krueger is most famous for his research suggesting that it’s possible to raise the minimum wage modestly without hurting employment levels, research that makes conservatives literally apoplectic if you mention it. Think I’m exaggerating? Krueger did the research with UC Berkeley’s David Card, and Card shortly decided to abandon the subject because of the furious response it provoked. Here’s his explanation for never wanting to do research on the minimum wage again:

    It cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

    Now, who knows? Maybe Card is just unusually thin-skinned. But I don’t think so. This is the kind of thing that happens when you suggest that there’s more to life than simple Econ 101 models. The right hasn’t had time to respond to Krueger’s appointment yet, and maybe they’ll decide to give this a pass since (a) CEA chair isn’t exactly a high profile appointment among their tea party base, and (b) they already had their shots at him back when he worked at Treasury. But I imagine we’ll start hearing about it soon. Probably ferocious denunciations of Krueger as an ivory tower professor who denies the common sense operation of supply and demand, has no ground level experience in the business world (where he would have learned first-hand the crippling effects of raising the minimum wage), and is intent on, um — debasing the dollar. Yeah. Debasing the dollar.

    Or something. Anyway, it should start soon. Should be fun in a B-list kind of way.