Kevin Drum - February 2012

The FCC Cracks Down on Those F*$%#! Robocallers

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 11:40 AM EST

Here is today's installment of "Government Bureaucrats Working To Make Your Life Better." Seriously. Behold the latest rule from the FCC:

After receiving thousands of complaints from consumers, the Federal Communications Commission clamped down Wednesday on unwanted robo-calling by approving sweeping changes to its telemarketing rules for wireline and mobile phones.

....Under the new FCC rules, telemarketers are required to obtain written consent, which can be in the form of an online approval, before placing autodialed or prerecorded calls to a consumer. Telemarketers also must provide an automated opt-out mechanism during each robo-call so that consumers can immediately tell the telemarketer to stop calling.

The FCC also eliminated the "established business relationship" exception, which had allowed robo-calls to be placed to the land-line home phones of consumers with "prior or existing" associations with companies represented by telemarketers.

I'm especially thrilled about the last bit. If my dentist (or whoever) wants to call to tell me something genuine (don't forget your checkup tomorrow!), that's fine. But if they just want to harass me endlessly with robocalls to sell me more stuff (we're having a sale on tooth whitening!) then forget it. That's an ordinary commercial telemarketing call and I want it stopped regardless of whether I happen to have set foot in their establishment before.

I have my doubts about how many robocallers actually care about the FCC's rules, but I'm sure at least some of them do, and thus my life will be made ever so slightly better. So hooray for the FCC. These are your bureaucrats watching out for you.

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The Reading Gap Between the Top and Bottom Has Gone Up. Or Maybe It's Gone Down.

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 11:06 AM EST

I finally got around to reading last week's New York Times story about the widening education gap between high and low-income students. The chart on the right tells the story: according to research by Sean Reardon, the gap in reading performance between black and white children has declined by about one grade level since 19701 (one "unit" on the chart is three grade levels). At the same time, the gap between rich and poor has gone up by nearly two grade levels:

“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said....One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

This all seems pretty believable, but it's a little odd nonetheless. Here's another chart, this time from the long-term NAEP test, showing reading performance among 9-year-olds at the top and bottom of the performance spectrum:

These two charts aren't necessarily contradictory. One shows income levels and the other shows performance levels. Still, common sense suggests that the top percentiles of performance are mostly made up of high-income kids while the lowest percentiles are mostly made up of low-income kids. And on the performance chart, the gap hasn't been growing at all. In 1971, the gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10% was 108 points (on a scale where ten points is roughly one grade level). In 2008 the gap was down to 94 points. The gap shrunk by about one and a half grade levels during the exact same period that Reardon says the income gap increased by about one and a half grade levels. If you compare the top 25% to the bottom 25% you see about the same thing.

So....I dunno. As I said, these are two different measurements, and the NAEP test doesn't break down scores by income. But it still seems surprising that there's such a difference. At the very least, I wish the Times had explored this and tried to explain it.

1Note that the Reardon chart is by birth year. So look at the numbers in 1960 to see the gap between 9-year-olds in 1970.

Authors Have a Moral Right to Profit From Their Works

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 6:34 PM EST

I really and truly didn't mean to make this into copyright week here on the blog, and I promise to shut up about this soon. But there's a piece of this conversation that seems to be perpetually ignored, and Jerry Brito gives me an excuse to mention it today. He's responding to the back-and-forth between Tim Lee and me on recent legislative attempts to enforce copyright in the digital era:

Tim points out that copyright owners have, as a matter of fact, received greater and greater enforcement powers—almost on an annual basis. As a result, Tim says, “most of us are not anti-copyright; we just think enough is enough, and that the menu of enforcement tools Congress has already given to copyright holders is more than sufficient.”

Sufficient for what, though? Sufficient to significantly reduce piracy online? That’s certainly not the case. Piracy is rampant on the net. Some would say, though, that the only meaningful ways left to enforce copyright would (dare I say it?) break the Internet as we know it.

So I think that when Tim says that the powers copyright holders now have are “more than sufficient,” I think he means sufficient to provide an incentive to create. After all, the purpose of copyright is to “promote the progress of science,” not to protect some Lockean notion of property. It may be the case that while owners’ rights are no doubt being violated, a further reduction in piracy won’t affect the incentive to create.

I am, as always, speaking only for myself, but I think this is too cramped. The Constitution says that the purpose of patents and copyright is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," but the fact that the Constitution says this doesn't mean it's the only reason to grant patents and copyrights. There's another reason too: because creators have a moral right to profit from their works. In real life, pretty much everyone acts as if they believe this, and I suspect that for most of us it's the real underpinning of our support for IP law.

In any case, it's certainly part of the reason I support reasonable enforcement of IP law. The Sonny Bono Act was a travesty, software patents deserve to die a quick death, and a lot of recent attempts to police the internet have been cretinously wrongheaded, but the reason this hasn't soured me on continuing to look for solutions to widespread piracy is because I'm not solely concerned with promoting innovation and creation. I'm also concerned with protecting authorial rights to dispose of (and profit from) their creations as they see fit, and this is as true for digital creations as it is for physical creations. I'd hate to live in a world in which authors found it nearly impossible to make money from their works.

Now, I might eventually find myself in such a world anyway. We'll have to wait and see. But I'm certainly not willing to shrug my shoulders and give up on it quite yet.

Mitt Romney Soon to Be America's Most Hated Man

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 3:15 PM EST

I don't really have anything insightful to say about this, just that it's an astonishing chart. Mitt Romney's favorability rating has been in complete free fall since early January. If the Republican primary lasts another few months, he's going to be about as popular as your average dinnertime telemarketer.

Chart of the Day: Letting Nurses Do More Doesn't Affect Doctor Pay

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 1:22 PM EST

Here's an interesting tidbit of research. Many states place substantial restrictions on the work that nurse practitioners are allowed to perform. Allowing them to do more might help relieve the shortage of family doctors and primary care pediatricians, but most doctor groups oppose this. Part of the reason is the fear that it would reduce physician pay, so Patricia Pittman and Benjamin Williams set out to see if this was true. Their answer: not really. In states that ditched their restrictive SOP (scope of practice) laws — the blue dots in the charts on the right — pediatricians actually made more money, while GPs made slightly less. In both cases, the difference was small and not statistically significant. Aaron Carroll comments:

Bottom line — there was no difference. Allowing more mid-level practitioners to practice freely and independently was not associated with physicians earning less.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m married to a nurse practitioner. So I may be biased in my assessment that she’s amazingly talented. But for those physicians who are worried that increasing the ability of mid-level practitioners to work independently might negatively impact their income, that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case.

Incumbent professionals often promote restrictive occupational licensing schemes because they want to limit competition. In many cases, this is probably rational in a self-serving way. But in others, it probably doesn't even make sense from a purely selfish perspective. This seems to be one of them.

Greece Is Now the Unhappiest Nation in Europe

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 12:40 PM EST

Earlier this morning I was emailing with Stuart Staniford about America's social fabric and whether it was declining. He noted that self-reported happiness hasn't changed much over the past few decades, which might suggest that there hasn't been much decline after all. But we both agreed that this doesn't mean much since practically nothing seems to change happiness levels. They just rumble along forever at about the same level.

At least, that's the case in most countries. But it turns out there are events short of war that can have a significant effect. Behold Greece:

As it happens, Greeks weren't all that happy even before their financial collapse. Most European countries score consistently above six, and some score well above that. But if the Greeks were (contrary to stereotype) slightly disconsolate over the past few decades, they've been practically suicidal ever since the austerity madness prompted by the 2008 financial collapse. They aren't quite as bad off as the dirt-poor, HIV-ravaged African nations that usually rank at the bottom of these lists, but as near as I can tell Greece is now the unhappiest nation in Europe.

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The Obama Coalition Is Magically Reassembling Before Our Eyes

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 12:14 PM EST

Matchup polls are pretty much useless this far ahead of an election, but Ron Brownstein points out something genuinely interesting about the internals of recent polls that match Barack Obama against Mitt Romney: Obama's support is almost precisely the same among various subgroups as it was in 2008. He seems to be very successfully reassembling the coalition that powered him to victory four years ago:

On the broadest measure, Pew found Obama attracting 44 percent of whites (compared to 43 percent in 2008) and 79 percent of non-whites (compared to 80 percent in 2008). In the Pew survey, Obama attracted 49 percent of whites with at least a four year college degree (compared to 47 percent against McCain) and 41 percent of whites without one (compared to 40 percent in 2008).

Looking at ideology, the reversion to 2008 is almost exact. Against Romney, Pew finds Obama attracting 89 percent of liberals, 20 percent of conservatives (each exactly his share against McCain), and 61 percent of moderates (compared to 60 percent in 2008.) On partisanship, the story is similar: against Romney, Pew finds Obama attracting 9 percent of Republicans (exactly his 2008 share), 51 percent of independents (compared to 52 percent last time) and 94 percent of Democrats (up from 89 percent in 2008). In the Pew survey, Obama wins 46 percent of white independents (compared to the 47 percent he drew against McCain).

This comes via Ed Kilgore, who notes that "it's getting easier to imagine an Obama victory, not just as a general, abstract possibility, but in terms of the flesh and bone of an actual majority coalition of voters."

Is Copyright Enforcement Hopeless?

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 11:19 AM EST

I had a Twitter conversation yesterday with Tim Lee regarding my post about copyright enforcement, and today he responds at greater length. My contention is that copyright enforcement in the digital realm, though it's obviously had a pretty bumpy history, isn't self-evidently impossible. In fact, it might well be technically feasible. Tim responds:

The phrase that jumped out at me was "we won't know until we try." Among people who don't pay close attention to technology issues, there seems to be a widespread impression that the copyright debate pits those who think we should enforce copyright against those who are ideologically opposed to copyright protection. But the reality is that we've been "trying" to crack down on illicit file sharing for at least two decades, granting copyright holders stronger and stronger enforcement powers and devoting more and more taxpayer dollars to the effort.

[Bullet list of recent history follows, including lots of patently dumb stuff the content industry and the government have colluded on]

....The broader point is clear: every item on this list has imposed costs on third parties. Technologies with clear non-infringing uses have been pushed out of the market. Innocent parties have had their websites shut down. A woman was arrested for filming a birthday party that happened to occur in a movie theater. Angel investor Paul Graham has said he avoids funding music-related startups because the record labels are "effectively a rogue state with nuclear weapons." And most of these enforcement efforts costs taxpayer money.

By coincidence, yesterday I also linked to a piece by Gabriel Rossman that, I think, encapsulates a lot of current thinking about IP law:

My main intuition on this is that an industry that sponsored the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act has forfeited its claim to our sympathies. Thus even when it has a legitimate grievance, I am inclined to give it only mild weight. Thus I tentatively favor the Megaupload suit but I’m gonna say “sucks to be you” when the industry demands escalating the fight against piracy into the top priority of US trade diplomacy and a total war waged on the terrain of the internet’s low-level infrastructure. Nonetheless I think it’s important to clarify just how complicated estimating the effects of piracy are.

....More broadly, I think we need to be skeptical of free lunch thinking that if a policy has undesirable consequences this doesn’t mean we have to pretend there is no real problem it is addressing. It’s a common position to say “I don’t like bullying tactics, bad faith arguments, and rent-seeking of the IP industry, therefore piracy is not a problem.” I sympathize with this frustration but it’s more intellectually honest to take seriously that there might be a problem that we decide it is better to leave unsolved.

This is roughly where I am. In my view, Tim is totally correct to point out that IP enforcement in the digital era has been a farrago of bad faith, corporate rent seeking, and idiotic overreach. At the same time, I pretty strongly believe in reasonable levels of IP protection, and Tim says he does too. So the only question remaining is whether those reasonable levels are possible in the digital era without imposing intolerable costs on the rest of us.

Tim looks at recent history and thinks it isn't. Partly, I assume, he thinks this for political reasons (the content industry has so much political power that they'll always be able to jam through idiotic laws) and partly for technical reasons (there's just no way to prevent digital copying without massive intrusions on personal liberty). I'm not so sure. I look at the past couple of decades and I see a ton of uncertainty and panic: no one quite knows where everything is going, so the proverbial kitchen sink has been tossed at the problem, with predictably galling consequences. But two decades of technological development isn't really that much. Copyright law went through a lot of turmoil in the 19th and early 20th century too, as technology and globalization upended existing notions of authorial rights, but eventually things settled down. Among other things, the result was stepped up law enforcement and various bad actors being fined or sent to jail. Was that an intolerable intrusion of the state? A lot of people thought so at the time. Today we take it for granted.

Likewise, digital IP enforcement is going through the same growing pains today. It's a harder problem than in the past, both technically and politically, and Tim may be right that it's inevitably going to turn out badly. I just wouldn't be so quick to say so. As the SOPA fight shows, public awareness of what's going on in the IP realm has only barely started to gain critical mass, and I think there's a good chance it will grow in the future, producing a solid counterweight to the power of the content industry. And on the technical side, I just don't know. Maybe there really is no way to prevent unauthorized digital copying at reasonable social cost. But I don't think we can say that for sure yet. Not only is the technology itself rapidly evolving, but so are our cultural beliefs about privacy. Things that would have seemed intolerable a few decades ago are now met with yawns.

If the content industry continues to act as stupidly as they have so far, they'll probably lose. If they get smarter, they might not. It's still early days on this stuff.

Austerity: Not Working in Portugal Either

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 1:08 AM EST

One of my editors suggested I comment on this story:

As debt-plagued Greece struggles to meet Europe’s strict terms for receiving its next round of bailout money, the lesson of Portugal might bear watching.

Unlike Greece, Portugal is a debtor nation that has done everything that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have asked it to, in exchange for the 78 billion euro (about $103 billion) bailout Lisbon received last May.

And yet, by the broadest measure of a country’s ability to repay its debts, Portugal is going deeper into the hole.

Unfortunately, I don't know what the hell to say. The basic story is simple: by demanding austerity from Portugal, European leaders are putting the Portuguese economy into a downward spiral. As Portugal's economy deteriorates, their debt levels become ever more unsustainable, requiring yet more austerity and tanking their economy even further. This is the same cycle happening in Greece (and Spain and Italy), and it's not clear where it ends.

But what's the alternative? Shovel vast amounts of money into these countries essentially without condition? That's just not in the political cards.

So what happens next? There are a few possibilities:

  • Europe muddles through. The PIIGS take a big GDP hit and put up with lots of riots and general misery, but eventually the global economy recovers, they stabilize a bit, and things start to slowly improve.
  • The PIIGS default on their debt and, perhaps, exit the eurozone and devalue their currency. After a wrenching few years, they start to recover.
  • The EU decides to become a genuine United States of Europe, and distribution of wealth from rich areas to poor areas becomes a permanent feature of the landscape, just as it is in the United States of America.

Frankly, all of these options seem pretty unlikely. Unfortunately, I can't guess which of them is the least unlikely. But these have been the options all along, and they're still the options. Nothing has really changed.

America Might Be in Better Shape Than David Brooks Thinks

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 11:50 PM EST

David Brooks writes today that the half century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of "impressive social cohesion." But since then everything has gone to hell:

In the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated. Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented…The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them. It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities.

For the moment, I don't want to argue about why our social fabric is so depleted. I want to step back and ask if our social fabric is depleted. Let's take a look at a few possible markers of social breakdown:

  • Violent crime rose during the '60s and '70s but it's dropped steeply for the past 30 years. Violent crime rates today are one-third the rates of the early '80s.
  • High school graduation rates are a little hard to get a handle on. The official statistics say that graduation rates have risen steadily for all races over the past 40 years. James Heckman says that a better look at the data suggests that graduation rates have actually fallen by 4 to 5 percentage points. But an EPI study using high-quality longitudinal data suggests an increase of 3 to 4 percentage points. (A lot of the differences in these statistics depend on whether you count students with GEDs.)
  • The non-elderly poverty rate fell during the '60s and has stayed relatively flat since then (though the current economic downturn has temporarily sent it up a few points). The Census Bureau produced a new measure of poverty last year, but it didn't differ a lot from the standard measure.
  • Illicit drugs tend to go in and out of fashion, which makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about drug use in general. Roughly speaking though, it's probably safe to say that drug use among teens and young adults went up in the '60s and '70s, declined in the '80s, rose during the early '90s, and then began falling modestly starting in the late 90s. Illicit drug use today is certainly higher than it was during the first half of the last century, but it's been on an overall downward trend for the past 30 years.
  • Marriage rates are down and divorce rates are up.

So here's my question. Of these five markers, the only one that's indisputably worse and in long-term decline is marriage rates. The others are either better or about the same as they were 40 years ago. So what exactly is it that makes us think the social fabric of America is unraveling? The whole argument seems to hang awfully heavily on the decline in marriage rates.

There are other markers you could look at, of course. Income inequality. Churchgoing. Labor force participation. Membership in civic organizations. Charitable giving. Union membership. Political polarization. If you pick just the right markers and tell just the right story, you can probably make a case for a decline in the social fabric. But if you look at them all, you see some that look good and some that look bad — and we don't even agree on which is which. I think the decline in union membership is bad; David Brooks probably thinks it's good. Conversely, Brooks probably thinks the decline in churchgoing is bad; I'm not bothered by it at all.

What's more, I don't really buy the notion that American society has "segmented" either. I can be convinced otherwise if there's good evidence, but my sense is that the main thing that's changed here is that we're increasingly aware of our fragmentation thanks to living in a media-saturated environment. What did backwoods Appalachians have in common with New York bankers half a century ago? Pretty much nothing. But if you relied on the national media for your news, you barely even knew they existed. Maybe Life ran an occasional photo spread, but that was it. Ditto for black communities, Hispanic communities, evangelical communities, and a hundred other communities. Hell, judging by the reception Michael Harrington got for The Other America, most of us were blissfully unaware that poverty even existed. In actual fact, all of these things existed; they just didn't get a lot of attention. Today they do. That might make it seem like things are on a downhill slope, but it's really just a trick of the light (and perhaps advancing age).

Maybe America really is going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe our social fabric really is disintegrating. But anyone who tosses this stuff around really needs to provide some solid evidence that it's happening — and needs to contend with all the evidence, not just a few cherry-picked trends. Let's hear the argument.