Kevin Drum - 2012

Chart of the Day: Gun Ownership is on a 30-Year Decline

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 3:46 PM EST

Paul Waldman, in the final installment of his epic series about guns and the NRA (nickel summary: the gun lobby isn't as influential as you think), provides us with a surprising chart. For the last 30 years, it turns out, gun ownership has dropped steadily. Today, only about 30% of households own a gun. Most of this is due to demographics. Apparently there was a big spurt in gun ownership in the generation born between 1920 and 1960, and then the spurt went away. Cohorts born in later years all own guns at substantially lower levels.

It's hard to square this up with gun sales because (a) nobody seems to reliably track overall gun sales, and (b) the vast majority of new gun sales are made to a smallish number of big customers, such as police forces and militaries. Still, unit gun sales seem to have gone up pretty explosively between 2005-10, doubling from around 5 million per year to 10 million per year. FBI background checks, a proxy for gun sales to individuals, have gone up too.

So I'm not sure what's going on. Gun sales to individuals seem like they've increased a fair amount over the past decade, but the number of households reporting gun ownership has decreased a bit. Does this mean that fewer households own guns, but the ones that do own guns have more and more of them? More data please!

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Will We Invade Iran Someday?

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:49 PM EST

It's never been clear to me that we could actually do a substantial amount of damage to Iran's nuclear program merely by engaging in a few days of bombing runs. Even eight years ago, the best guess among national security types seemed to be that it would take a couple of weeks of concentrated effort, and it must be harder by now. I guess we could still do it, but surely we're talking about a fairly long-term mission. Several weeks at best, maybe even months.

But even if I'm wrong about that, Robert Wright argues that the inevitable endgame for all this is a ground invasion anyway:

According to experts I've talked to, Iran would probably react to bombing not by burying its nuclear facilities deeper, but by dispersing them much more widely....So even if we were willing to make additional bombing runs on an annual basis ("mowing the lawn," as some call it), we could never be confident that Iran wasn't producing a nuclear weapon. The only path to such confidence would be to invade the country and seize the instruments of state.

Would we actually do that? Probably. In justifying the initial bombing, President Obama will have driven home how unacceptable an Iran with nuclear weapons is, thus establishing as a kind of doctrine that America will never let Iran acquire them....Doctrines can be abandoned, of course, but only at some political cost. And this one would be an especially unlikely orphan when you have a president who (being a Democrat) is insecure about his national security credentials and, on top of that, is insecure about his pro-Israel credentials. Of course, if Obama loses in November, then, one or two years down the road, it won't be the creator of this doctrine who is in the White House. But in the event of a Republican presidency, adherence to such a doctrine is pretty much assured anyway.

Maybe so — though this begs the question of how we'd launch a ground invasion. We've already pulled out of Iraq, and within a few years we'll be out of Afghanistan too. So where do we launch this ground invasion from? Marine landings via the Arabian Sea? That would be a helluva job even for the biggest navy in the world. It seems like there's a missing step or three here. How is this all supposed to play out in the end?

Andrew Breitbart, Force of Nature, Dead at 43

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:24 PM EST

Conservative gadfly Andrew Breitbart died suddenly today of natural causes, age 43. Oddly enough, I actually have a memory of him. I happened to sit next to him once a few years ago on a panel set up by a friend who was teaching a journalism class, and as near as I could tell he was keeping up about four or five streams of independent thought at once. He had his laptop open, and was (a) watching a baseball game—really watching, it seemed, (b) reading the news, (c) updating his website, and (d) responding very cogently and intelligently to questions from the students. There may have been some emailing and messaging going on, too, but I'm not sure. Just following the panel discussion sucked up most of my attention.

Pretty remarkable. Obviously I didn't care much for his politics or his tactics, but I think he was one of those rare people who really could multitask productively without losing effectiveness at any of his individual tasks. Whatever else you can say about him, he was a force of nature.

Bread and Circuses in Modern Rome

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 12:56 PM EST

Why did Olympia Snowe suddenly decide to quit the Senate? Jonathan Weisman provides this take:

Georgia Chomas, a cousin of the senator who described herself as more like a sister, said social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from the matters she cared about. 

“There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right,” Ms. Chomas said from her real estate office in Auburn, Me. “And she just can’t go there.”

It's easy to say that this is suicidal behavior on the part of tea partiers. They've hounded out a senator who's more moderate than they'd like, but her replacement is highly likely to be a Democrat, which just makes things even worse from their point of view.

But it's not just tea partiers. The left base of the Democratic Party is up in arms over the reemergence of Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, and the story there is pretty much the same. Sure, he's infuriating, but if he doesn't run a Republican is almost sure to win the seat. No matter what kind of lefty politics you have, it's hard to see how that's an improvement.

Back in the day — by which I mean five or six years ago — you had guys like Karl Rove defending RINOs like Lincoln Chafee because he knew that Republicans were lucky to have anyone on their side from a blue state like Rhode Island. Further back, William F. Buckley famously urged conservatives to support "the most conservative candidate who is electable." Political pros still think this way, I assume, but they're being overwhelmed by the party bases. This cost Republicans pretty dearly in the 2010 Senate race, where they lost at least three winnable seats because they nominated unelectable crackpots.

I dunno. Maybe we've reached a point where we're all so bored and so fundamentally satisfied with things that we don't really care all that much about winning anymore. What we want out of politics is entertainment, and insisting on gladiator-like duels to the death, egged on by howling mobs, is pretty entertaining. It all beats me.

The Unintended Consequences of Oprah's Book Club

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 12:07 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, the economics profession has finally answered one of today's most burning questions: did Oprah's book club really get Americans to read more? Answer: No. It got them to buy more books endorsed by Oprah, but fewer of everyone else's books. Craig Garthwaite of the Kellogg School explains:

In the 12 weeks following an endorsement, weekly adult fiction book sales decreased by a statistically significant 2.5 percent....All of the estimates show greater sales decreases, suggesting that a Club endorsement had a business stealing effect....Following an endorsement, the sales of classics rose by 3.5 percent []. In contrast, there were statistically significant decreases for mysteries and action/adventure novels. Romances also saw a sales decline....These estimates demonstrate that while the endorsements had no effect or even decreased overall sales, they caused a substantial shift in the types of books being purchased.

So what happened?

Club selections were longer and more difficult than the bestselling titles in the genres that were popular among consumers likely to respond to the endorsement. Assuming that longer and more difficult books will take more time to read, the difference in estimated grade level combined with the genre-level sales shifts help explain the pattern of aggregate sales declines in the main results....Taken together, these estimates suggest that the difficulty of the endorsed titles contributes to the aggregate sales decline.

Roger that. While millions of Oprah fans were pretending to slog their way through Faulkner and Tolstoy, they were too drained to read their usual light fare. So the beach reading genres suffered. And if my cynical view is correct, the net effect was to reduce the total amount of reading among America's households. We read less crap, but probably didn't make up for it by actually reading the doorstops endorsed by Oprah. Most of us probably plowed our way through a chapter or two, then slowed down to a page here and there, and finally gave up in exhaustion. But I admit that this is a dim view. Perhaps Garthwaite's next paper should tackle the question of whether people who bought Oprah's recommended books actually read them.

Personal Income Revised Upward — Way Upward

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 1:06 AM EST

The BEA announced today that GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011 went up 3.0%, not 2.8%. That's good news, but nothing super special. It's a pretty small correction, really.

However, the BEA also announced a correction to its estimate of income growth, and it was considerably more spectacular. Over at his official blog, Mark Doms, the chief economist at the Department of Commerce, provides his take on this:

While the upward revision to GDP was welcome news, there was even better news in revisions to the income data....Personal income growth was revised upward, from 0.8% to 3.2% in Q3, and from 2.6% and 3.2% in Q4.

As consumer spending wasn’t revised, this extra income implies that the personal saving rate was also revised upward in both quarters: from 3.9% to 4.6% in Q3, and from 3.7% to 4.5% in Q4.

These revisions to income and savings are significant because of the story they tell about the sustainability of the recent strength of consumer spending. The old story line was that some of the growth we saw in consumer spending in the second half of last year was fueled by a decrease in the saving rate. A challenge we then faced was the sustainability of future growth (since one can only lower the saving rate for so long). Today’s data show that the saving rate didn’t fall much and that the growth was instead fueled by higher incomes. I realize this is getting into the weeds a bit, but it really is quite good and important economic news.

This is good news. If growth is being driven by consumers spending down their savings, that's unsustainable. This is yet another sign that the economy may really be on the mend this time around.

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Chart of the Day: Women and Bylines

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 6:29 PM EST

VIDA has once again counted up the bylines in a variety of literary and political magazines in order to compare the contributions of men and women, and the news remains pretty bleak. Among the mainstream magazines (as opposed to the purely literary journals), the most and least egalitarian are the New York Times Review of Books, where 45% of the contributors are women, and the New York Review of Books, where a dismal 13% of all articles are written by women:

This comes via E.J. Graff, who asks:

Why is this important? Because the news purports to be objective, to tell it like it is. The media help create our image of the world, our internal picture of what’s normal and true. And when the news is being written by men about men, a significant part of reality is missing from view.

....We've all had plenty of fun mocking [Darrell] Issa's all-male panel on contraception—er, religious freedom. But you know what? That wasn't an outlier. The fact that Issa's panel was about lady business made it particularly egregious. But check out the world around you. All-male and 90-percent male panels convene every day. Sometimes they're called "Congress." Sometimes they're called your newspaper. And they're giving you a false picture of your world. 

More at the link. Here's a complete list of the mainstream magazines covered by the VIDA project, from best to worst. Sadly, Mother Jones wasn't part of the project. Perhaps some enterprising intern can leaf through our 2011 issues and come up with a count.

  • 45% — New York Times Book Review
  • 40% — The Nation
  • 31% — Boston Review
  • 26% — New Yorker
  • 26% — Atlantic
  • 25% — New Republic
  • 17% — Harper's
  • 14% — London Review of Books 
  • 13% — New York Review of Books

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive. Samantha Oltman checked through MoJo's 2011 archives and discovered that we ran 41 pieces bylined by men and 41 pieces bylined by women. Not bad! Click the link for more details.

Google Is Dumbing Down Search, and I Don't Like It

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 4:22 PM EST

Atrios:

I don't care where in the search results a specific Santorum page pops up, but I hate that their algorithms increasingly seem to favor recently updated sites. That's great for news, because it's, you know, news, but it's made Google increasingly useless as a research tool. Once upon a time if, say, Little Ricky said something stupid, I could do a Google search and easily [see] if he said a similar stupid thing a few years ago. Now the first several pages of search results will inevitably be just repeated quotes of the current gaffe.

Agreed. There's already Google News if you want the latest and greatest news. And there's an option (on the Advanced Search page) to limit your results to the past day or week or whatever. So people who want to search for recent stuff already have options. It would be nice if those of us who don't necessarily want just the recent stuff had the option to get that. Increasingly, we don't.

I don't suppose this will ever happen, but it would actually be kind of interesting if the Advanced Search page gave you the choice of various ranking algorithms. That could be really handy. Other than the fact that it might be a pain in the ass for the development team, is there any special reason for Google not to do this?

Defending Empirical Evidence

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 2:49 PM EST

Matt Yglesias isn't impressed with my post this morning showing that child tax subsidies don't have much impact on fertility:

I buy it, but on another level I don't buy it at all. This is just a chart showing that we've had sweeping waves of social and economic trends over the decades that totally swamp tweaks in the tax code. It's true that you can put together a two-variable chart with appropriately-scaled axes to make it appear silly to say that the tax code is having an influence on fertility rates, but really the chart tells us nothing. We know that some people have children, and that different people have different numbers of children. We know that people exercise some level of conscious choice about this. And we know that having children is costly in both financial and non-financial ways. People also find it rewarding. But the costs are real and extra money to defray those costs should, at the margin, encourage people to have more children.

A few points:

  • In fairness, the study itself is a lot more than a "two-variable chart with appropriately-scaled axes." That just happens to be the only part of the study that I included in my post.
  • In a sense, though, I agree with Matt: economists are endlessly clever at finding ways to prove that nothing ever has any effect. Design your model right and control for enough variables and pretty much anything can wash out if you really put your mind to it. These things should always be taken with a grain of salt until they get confirmed using a bunch of different approaches.
  • On the specific issue of child tax subsidies, of course there's a lot of underlying stuff going on here. And unquestionably, a tax subsidy almost has to have some positive effect on fertility. But the size of the effect is really, really important. Far more important than the mere Econ 101 statement that people react to incentives at the margin. Sure they do. But if the incentive effect is so small that it's swamped by everything else — which is what this study seems to show — then for all practical purposes there's no effect. Alternatively, sometimes there are counteracting incentives that no one has thought about. The only way to find out is to dig into the evidence.

Contra Matt, empirical evidence is not "one of the most overrated things in policy debates." It needs to be treated carefully, and it shouldn't overwhelm common sense. But sometimes common sense is wrong, and sometime incentive effects, no matter how theoretically compelling, are small enough that they don't really matter in the real world. That seems to be the case here.

In a nutshell: size matters. If I have one takeaway that I wish everyone would tattoo on their foreheads, that's it. As usual, then: more evidence, please!

POSTSCRIPT: As always, it's worth being conscious of your own confirmation biases. My intuition, for example, is that tax subsidies are unlikely to have much impact on decisions to have children. The benefits aren't big enough, people don't understand them very well, and other reasons for having (or not having) children are overwhelmingly more important. So naturally when I see a study that confirms this, I'm likely to believe it. Reihan Salam, who supports pro-natal policies in general, and Matt, who has more faith in theoretical constructs than I do, are more likely to be skeptical. Caveat emptor.

"Spending" is Not Our Problem, Healthcare Is

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 2:12 PM EST

What's the problem with the federal budget? CBPP has the answer: demographics. As the chart on the right shows, over the past 50 years spending on Social Security and Medicare has gone up steadily, while everything else has gone down steadily. Basically, "everything else" is in good shape. We should direct our attention a little bit toward Social Security and a lot toward healthcare costs, and stop obsessing about the rest.

In fairness, I'd break this down a bit further. Assuming I did my sums properly, federal spending on "everything else" — that is, everything except Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt — has indeed gone down from 15.2% of GDP in 1962 to a projected 11.3% of GDP in 2017. (That's from Table 3.1 here.) However, the national defense piece of that has declined from 9.2% to 2.9%, while the nondefense piece has increased from 6.0% to 8.4%. There are some arguments to be had about whether the defense piece of the budget is calculated correctly (it doesn't include veterans benefits, for example), and it's worth noting that healthcare costs are part of the nondefense picture too (mostly due to rising Medicaid expenditures). Still, the basic shape of the river doesn't change much. Most of the downward slope in spending is due to lower defense spending. Domestic nondefense spending hasn't gone up a lot, but it has gone up.

This doesn't really change CBPP's point, it just amplifies it a little. Outside of Social Security and Medicare, domestic spending rose during the 70s and then fell, but it's been pretty flat ever since then — until the Great Recession walloped us, anyway. We should, as always, keep an eye on it, but overall it's simply not a major problem, no matter how many times Republicans insist otherwise.

Bottom line: Social Security needs a little bit of tweaking and healthcare needs a huge amount of concentrated attention. Everything else is small beer. When it comes to federal spending, anyone who spends more than 10% of their time rabble-rousing about anything other than healthcare costs really shouldn't be taken seriously.