Kevin Drum - November 2011

Nate Silver Ranks Every Economic Indicator You Can Think Of

| Sat Nov. 19, 2011 11:48 AM EST

Nate Silver has compiled a truly spectacular list of every economic variable that might possibly affect a presidential election and then ranked them by how effectively they actually predict presidential elections. (Since 1948, anyway.) The top ten are below, but click the link for the full list of 43 indicators and a bunch of explanations of what it all means.

The descriptors in the list are a little confusing, but as near as I can tell they're almost all changes, not absolute levels. The exceptions are the various indexes (like the #1 indicator), unemployment, inflation, and a few others. But #6, for example, which is labeled "Real gross domestic product," is actually the change in real GDP, which makes sense. It's the growth rate that usually matters in these things.

The top indicators mostly aren't too surprising. I wouldn't have guessed that the ISM manufacturing index was so great, but change in payroll, change in unemployment, and change in GDP all make a lot of sense. This is one reason that I think President Obama has a good chance to win next year despite presiding over a lousy economy. It's quite possible that GDP will be growing and that unemployment, though high, will be improving too. Combine that with the fact that (a) incumbents usually get reelected and (b) Republicans seem to have taken up permanent residence in crazy town, and he has a pretty good shot at winning even if unemployment is still over 8%.

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Republicans and Their Gaffes

| Sat Nov. 19, 2011 10:23 AM EST

A few months ago, Matt Taibbi suggested that gaffes from conservative candidates didn't hurt them. "When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese," he wrote, "these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."

Dave Weigel says events have emphatically debunked this idea:

That's clearly not true, is it? Bachmann, Cain, and Perry have engendered the exact same reaction to their screw-ups. There's a wave of media-bashing from the base, collect-a-quotes from Tea Party leaders who say the media is unfair. And then the lights go elsewhere, and there's a slow, quiet, walk-away from the damaged candidates. In today's NH Journal poll of the Granite State, all three of the candidates I mentioned are deep, deep underwater on favorability. It's almost like Republican voters still pay attention to the media.

Hold on a minute, pardner. Let's roll the tape on this:

  • Michele Bachmann was riding high in the polls through June and early July. Then, on July 16, the Des Moines Register asked Rick Perry if he was going to run and he replied that he was "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do." Bachmann started plateauing in the polls. On August 8 it was widely reported that Perry would formally announce his candidacy the following weekend, and the next day Bachmann's poll numbers tanked for good.
  • Rick Perry began his meteoric rise at the same time and kept on rising through the first week of September. Then, on September 12, Bachmann laid into him for mandating HPV vaccinations for "innocent little 12-year-old girls." Perry immediately began sliding in the polls. On September 22 he suggested that if you opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, "I don't think you have a heart." Within a week his poll numbers began to plunge.
  • Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry's fall, rising in the polls during the entire month of October. On October 30 Politico reported that two former employees had lodged sexual harassment charges against him and received payouts from the National Restaurant Association. After a week of wildly fluctuating explanations, Sharon Bialek held a televised press conference on November 7 to say that Cain groped her in a car and asked, "You want a job, right?" Within days Cain's poll numbers began falling.

I don't doubt for a second that erratic debate performances and public gaffes have played a role in damaging all three candidates. But that's mainly because conservative voters already had something substantive to hang their concerns on. Bachmann fell because Perry entered the race; Perry fell because conservatives didn't like his Gardasil and immigration policies; and Cain fell because of sexual harassment charges. That's the main thing that damaged them. Acting like idiots was just the cherry on top.

Video: UC-Davis Police Casually Pepper Spray Sitting Protesters

| Sat Nov. 19, 2011 3:10 AM EST

Here's your blood pressure raiser of the day: Campus police casually pepper spray a group of Occupy Davis students who are sitting on the ground in protest after refusing to remove their tents from the quad. It's not Kent State or anything, but it's sure as hell an outrageous overreaction. Don't watch unless you have a fairly strong stomach for casual brutality.

Front page image: Louise Macabitas

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 November 2011

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 4:10 PM EST

Do you know what Inkblot and Domino are telling you in these pictures? They're telling you to buy a subscription to Mother Jones! In fact, when Inkblot becomes president, he plans to propose an individual mandate for MoJo subscriptions, so why not get a jump on things and just do it now?

Seriously, it's a great magazine and it only costs $12 a year for six issues. Click here to subscribe. And don't forget that the holidays are quickly approaching. What could be better than a gift subscription for someone who needs either (a) confirmation of a bit of sanity in the world or (b) a bit of progressive enlightenment? Click here to buy gift subscriptions for all your family and friends. Inkblot will consider you a pal for life if you do.

The World is Fast Approaching Peak Gingrich

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 3:55 PM EST

We've all heard of Peak Oil. But M. King Hubbert's original paper also covered Peak Coal and Peak Uranium. It turns out there are peaks in pretty much everything that we dig out from under rocks.

And speaking of that, it turns out that Hubbert's insight also applies to this year's crop of Republican presidential candidates. What's more, we can put this all in handy chart format — and thanks to modern technology we can do it much more colorfully than Hubbert could. Using RCP's poll average as a foundation, all the various GOP peaks are documented below. Based on this, I project that Newt Gingrich has about two weeks left before his excessive verbal extraction rate depletes his reserves of grandiose nonsense and his moment in the sun is over.

The Death of Middle-Class Neighborhoods

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 2:51 PM EST

The New York Times has a preview today of a new report showing that a declining number of people live in middle-income neighborhoods. Partly this is because the ranks of the middle class have declined, but it's also because of self-sorting:

The study also found that there is more residential sorting by income, with the rich flocking together in new exurbs and gentrifying pockets where lower- and middle-income families cannot afford to live.

Andrew Sprung relates this to his wife's suburban neighborhood when she was growing up in the '60s:

Mr. Grimm was a bricklayer. Mr. Wojick was a foreman at the Ford plant. Mr. Majewski worked in a bronze casting factory, as did one other neighbor. Mr. Cobb worked in product safety at Fisher-Price. Mr. Frank was a stockbroker. Tombari sold insurance. Panetta was a meat wholesaler. White was a concrete contractor working mainly on bridges. Carlotti was a dentist (and my father-in-law, an oral surgeon). The Murphys, husband and wife, were teachers, and so were the Stones. Burger was a roofer…[Today,] there are fewer factory workers, natch. And I suspect that the dentists and stockbrokers probably live elsewhere.

It was similar in my neighborhood. My father was a university professor. Our neighbor on one side worked at a local factory. Our neighbor on the other side owned a machine shop that made airplane parts. Our neighbor across the street was career Navy. My best friend's father was a Caltrans engineer.

You don't see that kind of thing as much anymore. Today the middle- and working-class folks have stayed or perhaps moved down, while the dentists and stockbrokers and professors and engineers all live together in upper-middle-class neighborhoods with great schools and great services. And this self-segregation works in other ways too. I remember reading once that if you have a college degree, the odds are that virtually all your friends do too. So I tested that once. At a party with about 20 of our friends, I mentally went around the room and ticked off each person. Sure enough, all but one of them had a college degree, and about a third had advanced degrees of one kind or another. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the report finds that 65 percent of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 1970 and today only 44 percent do:

Sean F. Reardon, an author of the study and a sociologist at Stanford, argued that the shifts had far-reaching implications for the next generation. Children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.

The isolation of the prosperous, he said, means less interaction with people from other income groups and a greater risk to their support for policies and investments that benefit the broader public—like schools, parks and public transportation systems. About 14 percent of families lived in affluent neighborhoods in 2007, up from 7 percent in 1970, the study found.

This isn't a new observation. We've been fretting for a long time about the rise of gated communities, the abandonment of public schools by prosperous city residents, and the booming market in McMansions. And more and more, this kind of segregation doesn't apply only to the truly rich. Increasingly, even the merely well off hardly have any social interaction outside their own class: They live in different neighborhoods, eat in different restaurants, send their kids to different schools and different sports leagues, and vacation in different places. As this gets worse, it's reflected in the increased insistence of the rich and the upper middle class that their taxes are far too burdensome and, in any case, are just wasted anyway. And that's true, if a big part of your tax dollars is going to middle- and low-income workers who all live elsewhere and barely even seem like real people. It's a toxic trend, and it's one that's increasingly reflected not just in our social lives, but in our economic lives and our political lives too. It's not clear what, if anything, can slow it down.

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The Economy is Looking Up! (Maybe)

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 1:38 PM EST

Karl Smith has been predicting for a while that pent-up demand for cars and housing will start to drive economic recovery in the very near future. Today, he notes that auto sales are starting to rebound, apartment construction is up smartly, and private forecasters are starting to project nice GDP gains in the fourth quarter:

As long as Europe doesn’t destroy the world — and it very well may — I expect Multi-Family starts to be posting record highs by the end of 2012.

And I mean record, never before in American history will construction be started on so many apartment complex units.

I continue to think that debt constraints are going to keep growth reined in for a while, and that both Europe and China might have serious effects on the U.S. economy in the near term. Still, there's also reason for optimism, and I think Karl makes about as good a case as anyone for it.

Prop 8 Gets Its Day in Court

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 1:06 PM EST

Last year, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, a California initiative banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. The initiative's backers wanted to appeal the decision, but neither California's governor nor its attorney general was willing to defend it. With no one to defend it, Walker's ruling would have stood by default and same-sex marriage would have been legal in California.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Prop 8's backers could defend the initiative if the state wouldn't:

Thursday's unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, strongly affirmed that ballot sponsors may represent California in defending initiatives when elected officials fail to do so...."Neither the Governor, the Attorney General, nor any other executive or legislative official has the authority to veto or invalidate an initiative measure that has been approved by the voters," Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.

Legal scholars said the state high court's decision was so adamant that the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide marriage rights as early as 2013, was unlikely to limit its ruling to the narrow and technical issue of "standing," a legal term for the right to go to court.

It feels more than usually loathsome to take sides with the Prop 8 folks here, but this is a good decision. It would be a travesty if a successful ballot measure could be overturned by a single district court judge and then, by virtue of a procedural formality, stay overturned simply because state officials declined to defend one of their own laws. If the tables were turned, I'd be blisteringly outraged by shenanigans like this.

Like it or not, Prop 8 was passed legally and properly. If it's overturned, it should be overturned on its merits — as Walker's decision did — not thanks to a legal technicality. I hope they lose, but Prop 8's backers deserve their day in court.

Quantum Mechanics Gets Even Weirder. Or Maybe Less Weird.

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 12:11 PM EST

I don't know if this is firm enough to be worth blogging about, but even if it's not, it'll be interesting to hear physicists cautioning us in comments not to go overboard about what this means. So here it is: three physicists have produced a theorem implying that the quantum wavefunction is not merely a mathematical abstraction that tells us the probability of subatomic particles being in certain locations and having certain properties. The Copenhagen interpretation, they say, is wrong. The wavefunction is an actual physical thing:

“I don't like to sound hyperbolic, but I think the word 'seismic' is likely to apply to this paper,” says Antony Valentini, a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum foundations at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Valentini believes that this result may be the most important general theorem relating to the foundations of quantum mechanics since Bell’s theorem, the 1964 result in which Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell proved that if quantum mechanics describes real entities, it has to include mysterious “action at a distance”.

Action at a distance occurs when pairs of quantum particles interact in such a way that they become entangled. But the new paper, by a trio of physicists led by Matthew Pusey at Imperial College London, presents a theorem showing that if a quantum wavefunction were purely a statistical tool, then even quantum states that are unconnected across space and time would be able to communicate with each other. As that seems very unlikely to be true, the researchers conclude that the wavefunction must be physically real after all.

....Their theorem effectively says that individual quantum systems must “know” exactly what state they have been prepared in, or the results of measurements on them would lead to results at odds with quantum mechanics. They declined to comment while their preprint is undergoing the journal-submission process, but say in their paper that their finding is similar to the notion that an individual coin being flipped in a biased way — for example, so that it comes up 'heads' six out of ten times — has the intrinsic, physical property of being biased, in contrast to the idea that the bias is simply a statistical property of many coin-flip outcomes.

So if this is true, what does it mean? In my vague and probably confused understanding of things, I always understood that the wavefunction of Bell's Theorem traveled faster than light. However, that was OK since it wasn't a physical thing and didn't convey any information. But if it's a physical thing, even a massless physical thing, how can that be?

Or does this result mean that entanglement doesn't really operate over long distances in the first place, that particles know their own states all along and don't react to observations of their entangled twin? Help!

In other, probably unrelated news, those Italian researchers who say that neutrinos travel faster than light have doubled down. They now claim to have reproduced their initial results.

The 2-Year Window

| Fri Nov. 18, 2011 7:00 AM EST

In The New Republic this week, Jon Cohn has an eye-opening piece, "The Two Year Window," about advances in the science of early childhood development. It opens with a description of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a study that removed infants from warehouse-style orphanages in Romania and adopted them out:

      It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country's population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn't support.... The new government remained convinced that the institutions were a good idea—and was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime's fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction. [Neuroscientist Charles Nelson] prevailed upon the government to allow them to remove some of the children from the orphanages and place them with foster families. Then, the researchers would observe how they fared over time in comparison with the children still in the orphanages.

…Prior to the project, investigators had observed that the orphans had a high frequency of serious developmental problems, from diminished IQs to extreme difficulty forming emotional attachments. Meanwhile, imaging and other tests revealed that some of the orphans had reduced activity in their brains. The Bucharest project confirmed that these findings were more than random observations. It also uncovered a striking pattern: Orphans who went to foster homes before their second birthdays often recovered some of their abilities. Those who went to foster homes after that point rarely did.

This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane reported a similar finding—with an intriguing twist. The researchers found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages....It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.

…"The concept of disrupting brain circuitry is much more compelling than the concept that poverty is bad for your health," says Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. "It gives us a basis for developing new ideas, for going into policy areas, given what we know, and saying here are some new strategies worth trying."

What's new here isn't really the idea that experiences in early childhood are important. In fact, in the era following the Second World War, the idea that habits established early in life are permanent was, if anything, belabored too much. "If mothers did not nurture their infants properly," Jerome Kagan wrote in 1999, criticizing this widespread belief, "their children would be vulnerable to a dull mind, a wild spirit, and a downward spiral…This view of development rests on the assumption that every experience produces a permanent physical change somewhere in the central nervous system, and therefore the earliest experiences provide the scaffolding for the child's future thought and behavior."

What Kagan was criticizing, though, was primarily the idea that particular styles of parenting were necessary to produce well-adjusted children. Generally speaking, that turns out not to be true: You don't need to play Mozart to your baby or jump through hoops to make sure she's properly "attached." Most middle-class kids turn out okay even though they're exposed to a wide variety of parenting styles.

But Cohn's piece is about something different: It's about kids whose infancy is, to put it bluntly, fairly appalling. And not just in warehouses in Bucharest. Diana Rauner visited child care facilities in Chicago while she was working on her doctoral dissertation and "described facilities where infants were strapped in car seats, 'watching The Lion King all day,' while the older kids were 'circling the room almost like sharks' and throwing things at the infants, because they had nothing else to do." That kind of environment, it turns out, can cause permanent cognitive damage, sometimes at a biological level, and it's probably a lot more common than you think.

You can see more of the evidence for the importance of early childhood in the chart on the right, which I posted earlier this year. It comes from James Heckman, probably the preeminent researcher in this area, and it shows average achievement test scores for different classes of children. All show the exact same dynamic: Gaps show up as early as age three and persist pretty much forever. Some of this is due to genetic differences, but not all of it. It's also due to differences in children's early environments. The lesson is simple: If you want to have a real impact on how kids do in school, you have to get to them early.

But even this understates the benefit of intensive early interventions. The payoff, in general, doesn't come in higher test scores, anyway. A large and growing body of research suggests that it comes in other behaviors: for example, the ability to delay gratification, the ability to hold a job, the ability to control your temper, and the ability to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

The problem, of course, is that early intervention costs money. Lots of money. According to Cohn, we currently spend about $11,000 per student in K-12 and about $4,000 per child under the age of four. That's crazy. But if we wanted to equalize that spending, how could we do it? One option is just to raise more money. But if we spent $11,000 for every child under the age of four, that would come to over $100 billion per year in new spending. There's no way that's going to happen.

Another option would be to take the pot of money we already spend and equalize it: spend about $9,000 per child all the way from ages 1-18. Unfortunately, this is hardly any more likely: If we tried to reduce the amount we spend on K-12, teachers unions would go ballistic, ed reformers would go ballistic, and suburban parents would go ballistic. If I were a benevolent dictator, I'd do it anyway, because it would almost certainly be a far better use of our existing money. But I'm not, am I?

Still, this is an area that cuts across party lines and deserves far more attention than it gets. The evidence has been mounting for a long time that intensive early interventions produce a huge bang for the buck, far more than what we spend in primary and secondary schools. The problem is that the bucks have to be spent now, and the bang doesn't arrive for another decade or two. Where's Bill Gates when you need him?