Kevin Drum - February 2012

Why Can't Republicans Figure Out How to Hold a Primary Caucus?

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 10:31 AM PST

Adam Sorensen on the embarrassing spectacle of the Republican caucuses so far:

Sure it took a month to declare the actual winner of the Iowa caucuses, tallies from eight precincts were lost altogether and vote counting in Nevada dragged on for days, but you can’t really understand the depth of dysfunction in the caucus system until you behold the caricature of incompetence that is Maine.

A nickel summary of the Maine fiasco follows. So what's going on? I don't remember anything like this on either side in 2008. Is it just an artifact of a bunch of close contests? Are Republicans trying to prove that we need tougher election laws by holding lots of seemingly corrupt elections themselves? What the hell is going on?

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The Internet Is a Major Driver of the Growth of Cognitive Inequality

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 10:07 AM PST

Apropos of yesterday's post about using Google to convert joules to electron volts, a friend of mine emailed this morning to say that Wolfram Alpha would be an even better choice. It's one of his favorite time wasters, he said.

Well. I remember using Alpha back when it first came out, and then giving up because it didn't seem to live up to its hype. But I haven't used it in quite a while, so I headed over to try it out. But what to ask? Hmmm. How about asking it to check the price of a gallon of milk?1 So I did. Answer: $20 million gal, whatever that means, which converts to $4.62 billion cubic inches, whatever that means. If you ask for the price of a quart of milk, it tells you the milk production budget for the Quart region of Italy. Thanks, Wolfram Alpha!

But does Google do any better? Sort of. I typed in the same question, and one hit was from an elementary school class project telling me that a gallon of milk costs $2.99 in Bakersfield, along with conversions of that amount into pounds, lira, and punts. Which suggests this data might be a wee bit out of date.

Another hit was from Yahoo Answers, which informed me that the price of milk was "OUTRAGEOUSLY TOO HIGH," and then provided a range of prices from around the country. The "Best Answer," garnering two votes, was $3.50. That was in 2008. Ask.com provided answers for 1917, 1950, and 2007.

In a way, this is the internet in a nutshell. One site provides a very precise answer that's spectacularly wrong. Another site provides a fantastic wealth of answers, all of which are sort of wrong in various different ways. But if you're smart enough to reformulate your search as "usda milk price retail," as I eventually did, you'll get this extremely authoritative-looking document from the USDA that provides average retail whole milk prices in 30 different U.S. cities for January 2012. The average is $3.69 per gallon. Other reports are available for reduced fat milk, organic whole milk, and organic reduced fat milk.

Moral of the story: the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter. If you don't know how to use it, or don't have the background to ask the right questions, you'll end up with a head full of nonsense. But if you do know how to use it, it's an endless wealth of information. Just as globalization and de-unionization have been major drivers of the growth of income inequality over the past few decades, the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality. Caveat emptor.

1Yes, I know that's not really what Wolfram Alpha is for. No need to ruin an entertaining post over it, though.

UPDATE: Via comments, it turns out that if you type "How much does a gallon of milk cost?" into Wolfram Alpha you get the nonsense above. But if you type "price of milk" instead, you get a nice chart showing the price of milk. Live and learn.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Losing Ground on Their Beloved Tax Jihad

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 9:22 AM PST

The folks at Democracy Corps are practically giddy over the results of their latest polling:

The Republican brand is in a state of collapse — over 50 percent of voters give the Republican Party a cool, negative rating....Romney may be on the edge of political death....President Obama is now at the critical 50 percent mark on approval and is approaching 50 percent on the ballot....On the named Congressional ballot, Democrats continue to lead Republicans....Unmarried women, young voters, and minorities [...] have returned in a big way for Democrats....A drop in negative feelings about the direction of the country and the economy are major and are shaping the mood going into 2012.

What's more, as Lisa Mascaro writes in the LA Times this morning, as the fight over the payroll tax cut extension unfolded, "something damaging happened to the Republican Party's once-dominant position on tax policy." By opposing the payroll tax cut, they've allowed Obama to take the tax high ground:

The way the debate took shape has "certainly caused damage" to the GOP image, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday. "It muddled the differences" between the two parties, he said.

Very sad. The chart below shows the damage to the Republican Party brand.

GOP Rhetoric vs. GOP Reality on Slashing the Safety Net

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 8:34 AM PST

Greg Sargent asks:

One of the central, driving questions in our politics is this: Why are people who are themselves reliant on government programs so prone to electing anti-government politicans who want to put them on the chopping block?

When we ask this question, I think you really have to distinguish between Social Security, Medicare, and everything else. Like it or not, most people simply don't think of Social Security and Medicare as "safety net" programs. They think of them as programs they've paid into all their lives and are now simply drawing down from. It's basically their own money being returned to them, not a "government program."

But there's another piece to this question that I think gets less discussion than it deserves: a lot of voters don't take seriously Republican bluster about cutting safety net programs, and they don't really trust Democrats to save them either. So from an electoral perspective, the contrast between the two parties isn't as great as it seems. The bottom line is that a lot of voters like the idea of talking tough about the safety net — it shows that your heart is in the right place, especially if you're talking about parts of the net for other people — but they don't really want the net slashed in real life. Republicans mostly deliver that combination. What's more, even if they get a little carried away, Democrats will stop them for purely partisan reasons. What's to get worked up about?

That may change if the tea-party wing of the GOP really takes over and a Republican president gets elected, but even then I suspect it won't change a lot. In fact, the recent deal over the payroll tax cut/doc fix/unemployment benefits bill suggests that even tea-party-ized Republicans can get chastened pretty quickly after a few weeks back home during an election year. They'll keep up the bluster, but they're not going to make any big cuts to the programs that their constituents truly want to keep. I think most of the people who vote for them understand this pretty well.

Who Actually Benefits From Federal Benefits?

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Roger Ippolito, a 74-year-old Korean War veteran, receives $450 a month in social security benefits.

Republican candidates have lately been parroting Charles Murray's argument that our "entitlement society" has created a nation of deadbeats who would rather live off government benefits than find a job. In response, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a study earlier this week showing the fraction of government benefits that go to able-bodied workers.

Their estimate is about 9 percent. I linked to the CBPP study on Monday, and since their methodology was fairly complex, I added a back-of-the-envelope version that simply added up the benefits of programs that don't serve the elderly, disabled, or working poor. I figured that would make the source of CBPP's number a little more understandable.

The next day I got an email from Arloc Sherman, one of the authors of the study. You can't just add up these programs, he told me, because even a lot of programs that people think of as "welfare" actually serve the elderly, disabled, and working poor too. Medicaid is the biggest example: Most of us think of Medicaid as a program for the poor, but more than half of all Medicaid spending actually goes to the elderly and the disabled.

So what percent of each program goes to the elderly, disabled, or working poor? The bulk of both Medicare and Social Security goes to the elderly and most of the balance goes to the disabled. The Earned Income Tax Credit goes almost entirely to the working poor. But what about the others? I was surprised when I saw the complete breakdown, and you might be too. Here it is:

Eighty-three percent of Medicaid goes to the elderly, disabled, or working poor. Seventy-nine percent of school lunches. Sixty-nine percent of unemployment compensation. Sixty-four percent of SNAP (food stamps). Even TANF, the classic "welfare" program, clocks in at 46 percent—and it's a very small program. The other 54 percent only amounts to about $6 billion, a minuscule fraction of federal benefits, and ever since the 1996 welfare reform bill those benefits have been temporary anyway. It's not really possible to become dependent on TANF any longer.

Overall, only about 9 percent of government benefits go to those who could be thought of as able-bodied workers who either can't or won't find a job. And as the study says:

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

Sherman adds this:

Another point: Many of those who decry the growth of entitlement spending seem to forget the most basic of all facts about it: it continues to be driven overwhelmingly by the twin engines of an aging population and the rising cost of medical care. Neither of which has much to do with dependency among the working-age population.

This is especially true for medical care, I think. We spend a fair amount of money on health care services for the poor, but even theoretically that does nothing to make them less likely to work. They still need money for everything else, after all. All it does is provide them with a bare minimum of decent health care. We can afford that, can't we?

UPDATE: I mistakenly said that all of Medicare and nearly all of Social Security goes to the elderly. In fact, about 81% of Medicare and 77% of Social Security goes to people over the age of 65. However, the chart is correct: 100% of Medicare and 96% of Social Security goes to the elderly, disabled, and working poor. I've corrected the text.

Yet More Evidence That Banks Are Too Heavily Regulated

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 9:50 PM PST

The Wall Street Journal reports today that between 2007 and 2010 a group of six big banks conspired to artificially manipulate a key interest rate, the yen London interbank offered rate, also known as yen Libor:

The yen Libor rate is set daily by a 16-bank panel, organized by the British Bankers' Association. Around 11 a.m. London time every day, each bank submits estimates to the BBA of what rates it would pay to borrow from other banks for different time periods. The top four and bottom four quotes are then discarded, and Libor is calculated using an average of the middle eight quotes.

The Canadian watchdog [investigating the case] said lawyers acting for the cooperating bank had told it that traders at six banks on the yen Libor panel—Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings PLC, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and UBS—"entered into agreements to submit artificially high or artificially low" quotes, according to the court documents.

The traders used emails and instant messages to tell each other whether they wanted "to see a higher or lower yen Libor [rate] to aid their trading position(s)," according to a court filing. Each of the traders would then "communicate internally" with the person at their bank who was responsible for submitting the Libor quote, before letting each other know if this attempt to influence the quote had worked.

Just a few rogue traders, I'm sure. Nothing to be concerned about. Move along now.

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Better Grad Students, Please

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 7:17 PM PST

Thoreau complains about a grad student in his upper division biophysics class:

One of the problems involves the entropy change from evaporating a cubic centimeter of water. She asked me how she’s supposed to know the number of atoms in a cubic centimeter of water. Um, this is basic freshman chem stuff.

No, that's not right. It's junior chem stuff. High school junior, that is. At least, that's where I learned it.

The same student apparently also had a problem converting joules to electron volts. Well, I don't know the conversion myself. But I typed "joules electron volts" into Google and got the answer in .33 seconds. So I guess at least some grad students don't know how to use Google either. This does not bode well for our coming economic war with China, does it?

Why I Don't Want Target To Know Quite So Much About Me

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 3:09 PM PST

Charles Duhigg has a fascinating story in the New York Times Magazine this week that's all about the way retailers use data mining and microtargeting to sell you more stuff. Among other things, he tells the story of how Target exploited a pile of clever statistical relations to predict when women were pregnant so that they could send out coupon books full of items that pregnant women might want to buy. As it turns out, Target was unamused by Duhigg's curiosity about how this all worked. When he asked Target to comment, they refused. When he offered to fly out to company headquarters, they told him not to come. When he did anyway, a security guard escorted him off the premises. Quite plainly, Target was concerned that their customers would freak out if they discovered just how much Target knows about them and how accurately Target can aim its marketing bazookas in their direction.

And it turns out Target was right: pregnant women did freak out. So they fine-tuned their coupon books to contain a bunch of random stuff (lawnmowers, videogames) among all the pregnancy-related items. Women who got those coupon books just figured this was the stuff on sale at Target this week and had no idea that it was more than a coincidence that half the offers were for diapers and onesies.

Longtime readers will be unsurprised to learn that I'm not thrilled by this kind of thing. But Felix Salmon challenges people like me to explain why:

Nowadays, computers have made it increasingly possible to fine-tune personalization down to the individual level, where it can sometimes get “spooky”....If sophisticated corporations manage to make their marketing materials less spooky, I don’t think there’s going to be much popular opposition to continued targeting — at least not in this country. Germany is different: Germans care a lot about their privacy, and fight hard for it.

Here, however, I’ve never received a good answer to the “why should I care?” question.

I'll admit up front that my reaction to this is mostly emotional: I just don't like the idea of Target or anyone else knowing so much about me. But the truth is that Felix is right. I don't really fear Target. The worst thing they can do with all their data mining wizardry is send me personalized coupon books. If I don't like it, I can toss them in the trash.

(As it happens, I actually think the increasing power of modern marketing in the hands of giant corporations is something we should all take a little more seriously than we do. But that's a topic for another day. For now, let's assume that Target's use of my personal data is pretty benign.)

So then: what's a good reason to be uneasy about this? Well, if Target can use statistical relations to predict pregnancy, I'll bet they can predict other things too. For example, the early stages of Alzheimer's. And much of the data that Target and other retailers collect is also available to other marketers at a price.

Sadly, not all of them have the scruples that Target does. If you were, say, a semi-shady company hawking dubious life insurance schemes, who would be your best prospect? Answer: someone still in enough control of their faculties that they live on their own without lots of supervision from their children or other caregivers, but just infirm enough that their judgment isn't so good anymore. They'd be perfectly suited to be scared/bullied into buying a bunch of crap they don't need. Hooray for data mining!

Alternately, keep in mind that it's not just corporations that can get their hands on this stuff. The federal government can buy it too for whatever profiling schemes the whiz kids at NSA come up with. I'm not super excited by this prospect either.

Now, it's true that scammers have preyed on the elderly for a long time, and governments have collected information about their citizenry for a long time too. But a problem that's small and controllable when the targeting data is both diffuse and arduous to collect can become cancerous when the data is cheaply and broadly available. Roughly speaking, then, that's my answer to the question of why I care. It's not Target per se. It's not my local supermarket. It's the fact that everyone is doing this, the data is all getting collected in centralized databases, and this stuff is then accessible to just about anyone, not just folks who want to send me coupons.

I suspect there's not much we can do about this. And maybe the good outweighs the bad in any case. After all, the internet is still a good thing even if pedophiles occasionally use chatrooms to stalk their prey. Still, I think there are legitimate reasons for concern. Life is more than just coupons.

Liberal Lunch Nazis Force Innocent Little Girl to Eat Chicken Nuggets!

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 11:18 AM PST

Have you been following the great North Carolina school lunch totalitarianism story? Me neither. But as near as I can tell, a little girl who was enrolled in Raleigh's "More at Four" Pre-K program came to school a few days ago without any milk, so someone — teacher's aide? cafeteria worker? who knows? — told her to go through the lunch line and get some. (It was free.) But she got confused and thought she had to get a whole new lunch. When she told her mother about this, the mother decided that school bureaucrats were forcing her child to eat their lunch instead of the one she packed for her daughter. A local TV station picked up on this, and before long the conservo-sphere was reporting that jack-booted thugs in North Carolina were forcing every child in their schools to eat only their Obama-approved chicken nuggets instead of nutritious family-packed meals.

Seriously. That seems to be approximately what happened — though I'll grant that the school system's communication apparatus seems to bear a wee bit of fault here too. Mark Thompson has the entire bloody blow-by-blow here.

Welfare vs. Tourism in the Sunshine State

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 10:47 AM PST

Mike Konczal says the illustration on the right is his favorite graph of the week. It's based on data from the Welfare Transition program in Florida and it shows two things. The line shows tourism revenue: high in winter, lower in spring, and lower still in summer. Obviously the tourism industry in Florida needs more workers in winter than in summer.

The bars show the sanction rate in the WT program: higher in winter and lower in summer. Apparently, when the tourism industry needs more workers, welfare case workers are more likely to force their clients out of the system and into the job market (i.e., "sanction" them).

The authors say that the correlation between these two things is .95, which is, frankly, too good. If Florida's welfare bureaucracy was trying to match up workers with the needs of the tourism industry, they couldn't produce a correlation that perfect. So there has to be something more going on here.

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn't really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it's possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren't there? Offhand, I'm not sure I see a problem with this.