Kevin Drum - February 2012

The Unemployment Rate is Down No Matter How You Measure It

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 3:50 PM PST

Every day there are several stories that seem to show up in about half the blogs I read. Today, for example, Mitt Romney said he doesn't care about the poor; youth unemployment is sky high in Greece and Spain; and if we just let the Bush tax cuts expire, a big chunk of our deficit problem goes away. And then there's Cardiff Garcia's post over at Alphaville that reproduces a graph showing what the unemployment rate would be if all the discouraged workers who have left the labor force were still in it. Answer: bad. "This alternative measure has remained above 10 per cent since September 2009, and...has mostly just moved sideways."

But wait. There's nothing magical about this. The graph comes from Nomura, but the BLS already tracks this stuff in a variety of unemployment measures that are released every month. U3 is the usual headline measure, but there's also U4, which is U3 plus all discouraged workers, and U5, which is U4 plus marginally attached workers. As the modified FRED chart on the right shows, all three of these measures have been declining in lockstep over the past couple of years. So even if you include all the folks who have just stopped looking for work, you still see a decline of about 1.5 points since the peak in 2009.

So color me confused. Unless the Nomura folks have some reason for thinking their measure is better than any of the BLS's measures, it looks to me like unemployment has gone down no matter how you measure it.

UPDATE: Cardiff Garcia contacted the Nomura folks to ask about this, and they explained that their measure is a modification of U4. In a nutshell, U4 includes the unemployed plus "discouraged" workers — i.e., those who say they want to work but have given up because they believe there are no jobs available. That number has declined over the past two years.

The Nomura measure, by contrast, counts everyone who has exited the labor force for any reason other than retirement. They simply assume that all other labor force exits are for economic reasons of one kind or another.

I suppose either measure could make sense depending on what you're most interested in. There's probably always a small segment of the labor force that's only barely interested in working, and that decides to stay home with the kids or write the great American novel given even the slightest incentive. Those folks are captured in the Nomura calculation but not in U4. I guess it's up to you to decide which you find a more useful measure of the state of the economy.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: What We Hate About Twitter

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:20 PM PST

Megan Garber points us to a new study of what we like and dislike in tweets, and summarizes it this way:

The Most Annoying Tweet Imaginable, in other words, would be overly long. It would contain stale information. It would #totally #overuse #hashtags. It would be excessively personal. It would be aggressively mundane. It would be whiny.

Overly long? Really? There are people who can't quite make it to the end if you use up your full quota of 140 characters?

In any case, the full study is here, and I actually took something different away from it: most of us don't really care that much. Take a look at the chart on the right and focus not on what we don't like, but on what we do like. There's surprisingly little difference. It ranges from about 47% for "Me Now" tweets down to 35% for "Presence Maintenance" tweets. That's not really a big range.

So with the exception of Presence Maintenance, which I think we can all agree has gone the way of the dodo, there's not much useful advice here. Go ahead and tweet whatever you want to.

After Three Years, Homeowners Still Being Treated as Political Pawns

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 11:46 AM PST

The overriding theme of President Obama's last few months has been "We Can't Wait." Translated, this means that we can no longer wait for congressional Republicans, who are plainly unwilling to address the nation's problems, so we're going to do everything we possibly can by executive action alone.

But as Ezra Klein points out today, that theme suddenly disappeared when the subject turned to relief for homeowners. Instead of proposing a limited program that he could enact on his own, Obama has deliberately chosen an approach that requires congressional approval:

In choosing to expand the program beyond Fannie and Freddie, the administration has also expanded the program beyond what it has the executive authority to do on its own. If they just wanted to further streamline the HARP program, they could recess appoint a new director for Fannie and Freddie and get to work. Creating the new program through the FHFA -- and paying for it through a new tax on banks -- requires congressional approval, and few think House Republicans are likely to sign onto a new tax.

The administration argues that there has been bipartisan support for refinancing initiatives in Congress. In the Senate, for instance, Republican Johnny Isakson (Ga.) has cosponsored legislation with Democrat Barbara Boxer (Calif.). And there’s no doubt that legislation produced with Congress’s cooperation can do much more to extend refinancing help than executive actions. But the question remains: If Congress ignores this bill, as they have ignored so many of the Obama administration’s other initiatives, is the White House sufficiently committed to leave Congress behind and use Fannie and Freddie to go their own way?

If this were any other program, I'm not sure this question would come up. But Obama's attitude toward homeowner relief has been so weak and so plainly inadequate for so long that his credibility on this subject is close to nonexistent. It's hard not to think that his latest proposal is meant more to score political points when Republicans vote it down than it is to actually help homeowners.

The High Cost of Bad Handwriting

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 10:58 AM PST

One of my longtime medical pet peeves has been jokes about doctors' bad handwriting. Ha ha. But it's no joke. If you have sloppy handwriting, then prescriptions and procedures get mixed up and patients suffer. (Or maybe even die.)

Today Sarah Kliff points us to an Australian study that quantifies this. In two different hospitals, researchers replaced handwritten records with electronic records in some wards but not in others. Then they measured prescribing errors per 100 patient days. Here are the results:

  • Hospital A: Errors reduced from 51 ---> 17
  • Hospital B1: Errors reduced from 39 ---> 10
  • Hospital B2: Errors reduced from 48 ---> 17

Three control groups saw only slight drops in their error rates. Replacing handwriting with electronic records has a huge impact. So the moral of the story is: Switch to electronic records! These systems not only catch medication and dosage errors algorithmically, but they reduce the chance of errors from illegible written scripts. In the meantime, start taking handwriting as seriously as you do washing your hands.

Public Money and Public Policy

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 9:13 AM PST

Yesterday, writing about the Obama administration's refusal to grant Catholic-run organizations an exemption from their rule requiring insurance plans to cover contraceptives, I said that if these organizations take public money then they need to follow public rules. Megan McArdle disagrees:

As Ross Douthat points out, the regulations seem to have nothing to do with whether the Catholic hospitals or other charities take public money; rather, it's the fact that they provide services to the public, rather than having an explicitly religious mission.

I've seen several versions of Kevin's complaint on the interwebs, and everyone who makes it seems to assume that we're doing the Catholic Church a big old favor by allowing them to provide health care and other social services to a needy public....In the universe where I live, some of the best charity care is provided by religious groups.

…In this world, I had been under the impression that we were providing Catholic charities with federal funds mostly because this was the most cost-effective way of delivering services to needy groups. Thus it's not obvious to me that we will be better off encouraging Catholic hospitals and other groups to provide services exclusively to their own flock, while exclusively employing members of their own flock. And I'm fairly certain that if I wanted to stage a confrontation with Catholic charities, it would not be over something as trivial as forcing them to provide birth control coverage to their employees.

I don't know if the Obama administration based its new regulations on the notion that taking public money obliges you to follow public rules. However, that's my belief, so that's why I used it as part of my argument.

But I want to make a broader point. I'm unhappy with the creeping growth of religious conscience exemptions to public policy, and this affects my belief that such exemptions ought to be pretty limited. I can live with exceptions for abortion, for example, but not contraception.

Here's an analogy. A century ago, if a Catholic hospital had refused to admit blacks, that would have been permissible. This isn't because no one thought such a policy was wrong. Plenty of people did, even then. But in that time and place it was a genuinely controversial question, and that's why the government didn't get involved.

But that changed. As the public came overwhelmingly to believe that racial discrimination was unsupportable, public policy changed and hospitals were required to admit all comers. If you claimed a religious exemption, too bad. You had to follow the rules.

The same thing has happened to contraception. Unlike abortion, which remains a genuine hot button, contraception simply isn't. Poll after poll shows that the public almost unanimously has no moral objection to contraception, and, by margins of 3- or 4-to-1, believes that insurance ought to cover contraception. This is true even among Catholics. It's almost literally the case that the only remaining objection to contraception in modern American society comes from the tiny, exclusively male group that makes up the church's leadership.

If the Catholic hierarchy wants to maintain its barbaric position that contraception is immoral, there's nothing I can do to stop it. But it's a position that maims and kills and immiserates millions throughout the world, and there's simply no reason that a secular government needs to—or should—humor them over this. I don't think the church will stop providing charity care because they object to the contraception rule, but if they do then we'll just have to find others to step in. We're living in the 21st century, and in the 21st century contraception is almost unanimously viewed as morally benign and practically effective. It's a boon, not a curse, and there's simply no reason that a secular government supported by taxpayer dollars should continue to indulge the pretense that it's not.