Kevin Drum - October 2012

Study: Multivitamins Reduce Cancer Among Men

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 12:01 PM EDT

Have you been taking your multivitamins? Me neither. But a new study suggests that multivitamins can reduce the long-term risk of cancer in men. Aaron Carroll runs it down for us:

Here’s the gist. They rounded up more than 14,000 doctors 50 years or older in 1997 and randomized them to get a daily multivitamin or placebo, and then they followed them through June of 2011. Otherwise, they did nothing to these participants, so there’s every reason to believe they were otherwise treated similarly. They wanted to see if the two groups developed cancer at different rates. They did.

Men who took a daily multivitamin had a statistically significant lower rate of cancer than those who took the placebo (17.0 versus 18.3 events per 1000 person-years)....This was an extremely large study, well done, with amazing follow-up. You can’t dismiss it easily.

The chart below shows the difference in cancer rates for men with and without a baseline history of cancer. Technically, there was no statistically significant difference between the cancer and non-cancer groups because the sample size of the cancer group was fairly small. But statistics be damned. It sure looks to me that you should really think hard about taking a multivitamin if you have a previous history of cancer. The adjusted hazard ratio in this group was 27% lower than the placebo group. In the non-cancer group it was only 6% lower.

Also: if you have no parental history of cancer, multivitamins had a big effect. The hazard ratio in this group was 14% lower than in the placebo group.

As Aaron says, "Multivitamins are cheap. You can buy them by the barrel at Costco. There are few harms or side effects." In other words, there's probably no reason not to take them, and there might be a big benefit. The full study is here.

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Quote of the Day: Vote For Romney If You Know What's Good For You

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 10:44 AM EDT

From Mitt Romney, in a June conference call with some fellow plutocrats:

I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections.

Subtle! Vote for Obama and your job is toast. Stuff like this explains why America's business elites are so beloved these days.

Stupid Gadget Buying is the Cornerstone of the American Economy

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 1:49 AM EDT

Brian Lam in the New York Times today:

If a gadget breaks, gets lost or is stolen, it makes sense to replace it. But deciding whether to abandon an older, still-working device for a newer, shinier one can be a soul-sucking dilemma.

This is crazy talk. If I actually waited for my gadgets to stop working, I'd still be using a slide rule and the American economy would be in a permanent depression. Stupid gadget purchases are the lifeblood of the country. Don't listen to this guy.

Post Hoc Not Always Propter Hoc

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 11:36 PM EDT

The Census Bureau announced today that housing permits were up 11.6% in September compared to the previous month. Matt Yglesias thinks Ben Bernanke deserves the credit:

That's all great news for the economy. I also think it's a clear sign of the power of QE3....Since monetary policy primarily works through expectations, it primarily works very quickly. QE3 was clear, forceful, and yet also relatively modest so a short-term one-off surge in investment activity (housing starts) and durable goods purchases (car sales) followed by a speedy return to the trend growth path is exactly what we should expect.

Well....maybe. But QE3 was announced on September 13, so it would have to work very quickly indeed to affect housing permits in the same month. Too quickly for the real world, I think. First, there would need to be one heck of a lot of builders with plans all drawn up and financing in place, eyes fixed on CNBC just waiting for the right moment to submit their applications. Second, local bureaucracies would then have to circulate the applications to all the various planning agencies, review and approve whatever variances are required, and issue the permits in record time to make the end-of-month cutoff. It's true that the September number is well above the recent trend, but color me skeptical that QE3 had anything to do with this.

Here It Is, the World's Simplest Tax Analysis

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 11:00 PM EDT

Earlier today I promised you that an analysis of Mitt Romney's tax plan from last night would be a lot easier than an analysis of his earlier plan. As you recall, Romney's previous proposal was to cut rates 20% across the board and eliminate deductions to make up for it. This means you have to model all the various deductions currently in the tax code and figure out how much each one is worth. Then you get into endless arguments about whether your model is right, which deductions are "on the table," etc. etc. In the end, it's your study vs. my study and may the best man win.

Romney's new plan slices through this Gordian knot by simply capping the total level of deductions at $25,000. It doesn't matter which deductions you take or how much they're worth. You just assume a $25,000 cap and you're done. No details needed. Easy peasy.

So here it is, the world's simplest tax analysis. Based on studies from the Tax Policy Center (rate cuts here, deductions here), it's an estimate of the effect of Romney's plan on tax revenue in the year 2015:

  • Tax loss from the 20% rate cut: $360 billion
  • Tax increase from the $25,000 deduction cap: $103 billion

Is this still too complicated? The colorful graph on the right should make everything clear. Romney is $257 billion short, and the rest of his plan (eliminating the estate tax, eliminating investment taxes for middle-income earners, lowering the corporate tax rate) just makes things even worse. One way or another, Romney has a whole slug of revenue he needs to make up. His plan just doesn't add up.

Cutting Carbon Emissions the Cap-and-Trade Way

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 5:38 PM EDT

Speaking of climate change, one of the best ways of reducing carbon emissions is to implement a cap-and-trade scheme. Basically, the government sets a nationwide cap for carbon emissions and then auctions off permits on a quarterly basis. Companies can buy permits at auction, and they can later trade them on the open market as their needs vary. The government caps and companies trade. It's a pretty elegant solution to reining in carbon pollution.

Of course, the whole point of these permits is that they raise the cost of energy, and Republicans quickly dubbed it cap-and-tax when Democrats tried to shepherd a bill through Congress, and that was enough to doom it. But that doesn't mean it's impossible everywhere. As I mentioned three years ago in my "10 Things You Should Know About Cap-and-Trade" article, Europe is already doing it. (It's item #3.) Brad Plumer runs down a few of the growing pains they've had since their ETS program started in 2005:

The ETS handed out far too many pollution allowances between 2005 and 2007, which caused carbon prices to collapse....Meanwhile, some electric utilities received free pollution permits and were able to earn “windfall profits” from their good fortune. That appears to have been an error, too. There’s also the potential for fraud within the system. In theory, companies can get a pass on their pollution by buying carbon offsets—paying for projects elsewhere that reduce carbon, such as planting trees in Brazil. But these programs are often criticized for poor oversight (and some of them might have happened anyway). That needs to be reformed, too.

These are the kinds of problems any big new program has, and they're being ironed out over time. But let's look at the bigger picture: has ETS cut carbon emissions? The latest "Results and Lessons Learned" report from the Environmental Defense Fund has the answer. Without ETS, total European emissions would currently be around 2 billion metric tons per year. With ETS, emissions are around 1.8 billion metric tons. Still too much, but headed in the right direction. This stuff isn't pie in the sky. We could do it if we wanted to.

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The Real Story Behind the Benghazi Attacks

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 1:22 PM EDT

I didn't notice this when it was first published, but David Kirkpatrick wrote a must-read piece on the Benghazi attacks in the New York Times on Monday. I've been mildly critical of the Obama administration for sticking too long to the storyline that the attacks were inspired by a YouTube video, but it turns out that on-the-ground reporting actually backs that up:

To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier.

....The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day. The assailants approvingly recalled a 2006 assault by local Islamists that had destroyed an Italian diplomatic mission in Benghazi over a perceived insult to the prophet. In June the group staged a similar attack against the Tunisian Consulate over a different film, according to the Congressional testimony of the American security chief at the time, Eric A. Nordstrom.

And was it an al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attack?

Whether the attackers are labeled “Al Qaeda cells” or “aligned with Al Qaeda,” as Republicans have suggested, depends on whether that label can be used as a generic term for a broad spectrum of Islamist militants, encompassing groups like Ansar al-Shariah whose goals were primarily local, as well as those who aspire to join a broader jihad against the West.

....Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its leaders and ideology are all homegrown. Those leaders, including Ahmed Abu Khattala and Mohammed Ali Zahawi, fought alongside other commanders against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Their group provides social services and guards a hospital. And they openly proselytize for their brand of puritanical Islam and political vision.

Spencer Ackerman says that you can nonetheless make a good case that "Jay Carney and Susan Rice misrepresented the Benghazi attacks," and I think that's fair. As Kirkpatrick notes, this might have been for political reasons:

Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who advised the Bush administration on the domestic politics of its foreign policy, said, “The line was ‘Osama bin Laden has been killed, the war on terror has been won,’ so why muddy that?” He added, “Faced with a range of possibilities, they went with the one that was politically convenient.”

Still, the bottom line appears far more favorable toward Obama's handling of the attacks than Republicans want to admit. There really is evidence that the video played a role in instigating the assault. Obama (and Hillary Clinton) really did cautiously refer to the attacks as "acts of terror" shortly after they happened. The attackers really do appear to be local fighters with only the most tenuous possible connection to al-Qaeda. In the end, there's not much left to the Republican story aside from some blame-game bickering over whether the State Department should have beefed up security in the months before the anniversary of 9/11. That's pretty weak tea.

The Media Blackout on Mitt Romney's Tax Plan

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 12:53 PM EDT

Bob Somerby has been complaining for some time that major news outlets have never really reported on the basic impossibility of Mitt Romney's tax plan. Today he reminds me of what I said about this a couple of months ago:

Quite sensibly, Kevin Drum suggested that the Post and the Times might be planning fuller reports in the future. But alas! One week went by, then several more passed.

Sensible! And yet, it didn't really happen. Annie Lowrey and David Kocieniewski produced a single he-said-she-said piece for the Times in mid-September, while the Post doesn't appear to have had anything at all from its straight news reporters.

I dunno. Maybe the conventions of news reporting in America simply make it impossible to write about this. It's too complicated and there are too many dueling studies. News reporters aren't allowed to dismiss hackwork even when they know that's what it is, so hack studies end up getting as much play as real ones.

For what it's worth, though, I think that last night might have changed the playing field a bit. Here's how Romney described his plan during Tuesday's debate:

I’m going to bring rates down across the board for everybody, but I’m going to limit deductions and exemptions and credits....One way of doing that would be say everybody gets — I’ll pick a number — $25,000 of deductions and credits, and you can decide which ones to use. Your home mortgage interest deduction, charity, child tax credit, and so forth, you can use those as part of filling that bucket, if you will, of deductions.

There's obviously still some weasel room in this since Romney only says that this is "one way" of implementing his tax plan. Still, it's now the most public, most specific version of his plan out there, and more to the point, it's also very easy to evaluate. You don't have to figure out which deductions are on the table, or how much each one is worth. No more arguing over life insurance interest exclusions or state tax deductions. All you have to do is analyze the value of itemized deductions for each income group and then figure out how a $25,000 cap would affect their tax obligations. There are still some ambiguities to worry about (is the tax exclusion of healthcare benefits part of this bucket?), but overall, this is fairly straightforward.

At this point, I'm not sure that anyone cares, though. The media seems disinclined to really hold Romney to account for his tax plans; the public seems to consider it a tedious argument over a bunch of confusing numbers; and the Tax Policy Center may think that yet another review of Romney's tax plan isn't worth its time. We'll see.

Last Night's Big Loser: Climate Change

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 12:01 PM EDT

I want to expand on something I mentioned at the tail end of my post-debate roundup last night: the big loser in Tuesday's debate was climate change. Neither candidate mentioned it, but they practically fell all over each other to declare their love for coal and fracking and drilling for oil on federal land. Here's an edited bit of the conversation about energy yesterday:

OBAMA: Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.

ROMNEY: Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production was down 9 percent....What we don’t need is to have the president keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas....We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada.  

OBAMA : We’re actually drilling more on public lands than in the previous administration....And natural gas isn’t just appearing magically. We’re encouraging it and working with the industry....Oil production is up, natural gas production is up.

ROMNEY: I was just at a coal facility, where some 1,200 people lost their jobs....I will fight for oil, coal and natural gas....I will fight to create more energy in this country...taking advantage of the oil and coal we have here, drilling offshore in Alaska, drilling offshore in Virginia where the people want it.

OBAMA : We’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire earth once. So, I’m all for pipelines. I’m all for oil production.

ROMNEY: I appreciate the jobs in coal and oil and gas. I’m going to make sure we’re taking advantage of our energy resources. We’ll bring back manufacturing to America. 

There were plenty of nods toward renewable energy in the conversation, but they were mostly pro forma. And they certainly weren't made in the context of climate change. They were mostly made in the context of "energy independence." The closest Obama came to saying anything climate chainge-ish was a vague reference to being "environmentally sound." Romney never came close at all.

I'm not really sure what to say about this. Pundit law suggests I should have a few hundred pithy words about it, but I really don't. Rightly or wrongly, both campaigns have apparently decided that climate change is a loser. Romney doesn't want to admit that it even exists, since this would enrage a tea party base that believes it's all a liberal conspiracy theory, and Obama apparently recognizes that it's a political loser and will gain him nothing. After the Copenhagen talks failed and cap-and-trade became cap-and-tax, he pretty much gave up on it.

Politically, he might be making the right decision. No broad climate change policy has a ghost of a chance of passing right now, and a public already battered by recession doesn't want to hear about carbon taxes or rising energy prices. Things like higher CAFE standards might be less efficient, but at least they're doable. And investments in clean energy, though risky in their own right (Republicans have certainly done their best to make Solyndra a dirty word), may be the best we can hope for right now.

It's funny, though. There was also a fair amount of China bashing last night, and you'd think Obama could at least use that to his advantage. Do we really want to cede dominance in solar technology to the Chinese? Or should we be investing to make sure that American solar technology is the best in the world? It's not the most high-minded approach to climate change, but it might work. Any port in a storm.

UPDATE: More from Ed Kilgore here.

It's Time For Romney to Give Benghazi a Rest

| Wed Oct. 17, 2012 11:13 AM EDT

There's lots of chatter this morning about Mitt Romney's "Benghazi moment" last night, and Ed Kilgore wonders if Romney will keep up his attacks on Obama's handling of Libya next week. "Given the extremely narrow nature of Romney's foreign policy critique of Obama last night and throughout the campaign, you do have to wonder what the final debate next week will be like. Will Romney continue to conduct an inquisition of exactly what Obama said when on the Libya killings, treating the incident as a sort of domestic version of Fast & Furious, a key to the Vast Liberal Conspiracy?"

That's pretty much my question too. Adam Serwer has a good rundown of the bickering over whether Obama really referred to Benghazi as an act of terror in his Rose Garden speech the next day, or whether he was just generically referring to acts of terror, and anyway, even if he did, why did he then decline to do it again a few days later, etc. etc. That's all fine, I guess, just part of a tight campaign entering its closing days.

But what I really wonder is: how has this become a serious question anyway? Why does anyone care if it took two weeks to decide that Benghazi was an act of terror? Two weeks! That's not exactly an eternity. Even if it were true that Obama spent a few days waiting for firm intelligence reports before making firm statements, is there anything wrong with that? Isn't that what a president should do?

Republicans seems to think that this is some kind of huge gotcha moment that will show Obama as a weak and flailing leader on the world stage. But I suspect they're caught up in their own echo chamber, the same one that insists Obama wants to take your guns away and has spent the past four years apologizing for America. Unfortunately, the more they dive into the conspiratorial weeds on this, the worse they look to ordinary Americans who don't really mind that President Obama waited a few days to sift through the evidence instead of going off half cocked within a few hours. That approach brings back sour memories of George Bush, while the endless forensic analysis of exactly what Obama said and when he said it probably brings to mind fever swamp Kennedy assassination obsessives poring over frames of the Zapruder film.

I really doubt that Romney is doing himself any favors by keeping this up. Fairly or not, Candy Crowley put a stake through the Republican storyline when she embarrassed Romney over his slipshod accusation, demonstrating vividly that he had mindlessly bought into yet another Great White Whale from the right-wing outrage machine without bothering to check things for himself. That's not Moderate Mitt, and that makes it a loser. He'd be well advised to move on to something that strikes average voters as a little less childish.