Kevin Drum - January 2013

Aaron Swartz Case Is About a Lot More Than Just Aaron Swartz

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 1:34 PM EST

I haven't said anything yet about the Aaron Swartz case because I wasn't sure I had anything much to say that hadn't already been said better by others. But Orin Kerr has written a couple of lengthy posts about the case over at the Volokh Conspiracy, and I think he makes an important point about the accusation that federal prosecutors basically hounded Swartz to his death:

I think it’s important to realize that what happened in the Swartz case happens in lots and lots of federal criminal cases. Yes, the prosecutors tried to force a plea deal by scaring the defendant with arguments that he would be locked away for a long time if he was convicted at trial. Yes, the prosecutors filed a superseding indictment designed to scare Swartz evem more in to pleading guilty (it actually had no effect on the likely sentence, but it’s a powerful scare tactic). Yes, the prosecutors insisted on jail time and a felony conviction as part of a plea.

But it is not particularly surprising for federal prosecutors to use those tactics. What’s unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That’s not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don’t just complain about the Swartz case. Don’t just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country — mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring.

I don't know what the answer is here. I think a lot of us have an intuition that hardball tactics are probably defensible when you're dealing with Tony Soprano, but not so much when you're dealing with a guy whose only crime was to download a bunch of academic research as an act of civil disobedience. But how do you make that distinction in a way that's workable, and in a way that's enforceable?

I'll leave that to others, for now, because I simply don't have the legal chops to address it. But I agree with Kerr: the problem here isn't Aaron Swartz. The problem is with all the other people you've never heard of because they aren't Aaron Swartz.

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Why Climate Change Legislation Failed -- And What to Do About It

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 1:15 PM EST

Theda Skocpol has written an immense study of why the 2010 climate bill failed. I haven't read it yet, but Brad Plumer talked to her yesterday and got the nutshell version: climate hawks had a really bad legislative strategy:

BP: So around 2007, Republicans were becoming more skeptical of climate policy. Yet the main climate strategy in D.C. was to craft a complex cap-and-trade bill amenable to businesses like BP and DuPont in the hopes that those companies would bring in Republican votes.

TS: I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But I don’t think the Republican Party right now is mainly influenced by business. In the House in particular, ideological groups and grassroots pressure are much more influential. And in the research we’ve done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA.

BP: So environmental groups weren't quite ready for Republican resistance. But then why did health care succeed when cap-and-trade failed? What was the difference?

TS: The two groups had slightly different strategies going into 2009. Health care reformers were thinking about how to build support among Democrats while many environmentalists were focused on reaching out to Republicans.

I think everyone agrees that there were lots of reasons that cap-and-trade failed. Still, I'd say the basic reason is the most fundamental one: the votes just weren't there, and nothing could have changed that. Sure, reaching out to Republicans was probably a doomed strategy, but what choice was there? You need at least a few Republican votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. Likewise, maybe Obama could have handled things better, but what did he have to offer skeptical senators in return for their votes? Not much. Unlike healthcare reform, where you could essentially buy off the opposition, there are big costs to cap-and-trade for certain states and senators simply aren't going to ignore that.

All this is pretty obvious, but I'd add one more thing: Democrats have been trying to pass some form of national healthcare for nearly a century. They failed half a dozen times before finally passing Obamacare by the skin of their teeth. Deep in their bones, they knew how hard it was to pass something like this; they knew how badly they wanted it; and they knew they wouldn't get another chance for a very long time. So, finally, after a hundred years, they stuck together just long enough to pass a bill.

Climate change doesn't have that history. It hasn't yet been bred into Democratic DNA and it hasn't yet failed enough times to make it clear to everyone just how hard it is and just what kind of infuriating compromises it takes to finally pass something. The unfortunate truth is that for something this big, you have to fail a few times before you can succeed.

The problem, of course, is that we don't have time for several decades of failure before finally doing something serious about climate change. This means that the usual legislative process might simply be unworkable as a way of limiting carbon emissions. The climate community may have to get a bit more direct about things if they want to make progress before the planet gets baked to a cinder.

Quote of the Day: Bill? What Bill?

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 11:52 AM EST

From Florida governor Rick Scott, explaining the virgin birth of the law that turned Election Day into chaos in his state:

It was not my bill....I didn't have anything to do with passing it.

It's true that Scott signed the bill mighty quietly, but sign the bill he did. And he defended it tooth and nail after that. But I guess sometimes the buck doesn't stop at the top after all.

America's Brutal Treatment of Its Struggling Wealthy Class

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 10:17 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran a story explaining the details of the fiscal cliff tax increases. Today it got new life as several bloggers united to mock the graphic that goes with it. Brad DeLong wants to know just how many single mothers with two kids and an income of $260,000 even exist. Xenos is amused that everybody in the graphic looks as though President Obama "ran over the family dog." And I want to know why even the retired black couple looks so miserable despite the fact that their taxes didn't go up at all.

In any case, I thought I'd help out by demonstrating why all these well-to-do wage slaves feel so brutally treated. It's because their taxes have gone up by a whopping 1-3 percent of their income. Where are the torches and pitchforks when you need them?

The NRA Just Doesn't Know When to Quit

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 3:40 PM EST

Will it be possible to pass significant new gun legislation? The odds are long, but one thing that might help it along is the fact that the NRA has become so batshit crazy over the past couple of decades. Every time Wayne LaPierre's spittle-flecked ranting shows up on your TV screen, I'd guess the gun control movement picks up another percentage point of support. Ditto for every time some nutball decides to sling an AR-15 over his shoulder and wander through a mall "just to show that he can." And ditto again when some backbench member of Congress gets a bit of airtime for fulminating against the UN's black helicopters.

Today's case in point is on the right. “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the NRA asks. Why does Obama think Sasha and Malia deserve Secret Service protection but your children don't? He's a hypocrite!

The NRA must be desperate to break one of the fundamental laws of politics: you never involve the president's kids. Even Rush learned that lesson. But they just don't know when to quit. The NRA has gone so far around the bend that it doesn't seem to occur to them anymore that stuff like this disgusts most normal Americans, and it's something that even their allies in Congress can't support.

The NRA is at once our bitterest enemy and our best friend when it comes to gun regulation. If they keep producing stuff like this, they just might lose this battle after all.

The Sad Story of Fish Oil and Small Sample Sizes

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 2:22 PM EST

Keith Humphreys passes along the sad story today of fish oil's journey from miracle cure to nothingburger. The chart below shows the evolution of research on Omega-3 supplements over the past 17 years, where a small "relative risk" number indicates a beneficial effect and 1.0 indicates no effect at all:

Humphreys explains how this happens:

When there were only a little data available, fish oil looked like manna from heaven. But with new studies and more data, the beneficial effect has shrunk to almost nothing. The current best estimate of relative risk (bottom row of table) is 0.96, barely below 1.0. And the “confidence interval” (the range of numbers in parentheses), which is an indicator of how reliable the current estimate is, actually runs to a value slightly greater than 1.0.

Why does this happen? Small studies do a poor job of reliably estimating the effects of medical interventions. For a small study (such as Sacks’ and Leng’s early work in the top two rows of the table) to get published, it needs to show a big effect — no one is interested in a small study that found nothing. It is likely that many other small studies of fish oil pills were conducted at the same time of Sacks’ and Leng’s, found no benefit and were therefore not published. But by the play of chance, it was only a matter of time before a small study found what looked like a big enough effect to warrant publication in a journal editor’s eyes.

Caveat lector. Don't believe everything you read, especially if there's only one study and it has a small sample size. It's still possible that fish oil has a slight beneficial effect, but it's unlikely. Spend your money on something else.

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Obama Introduces Hopeless Set of Gun Proposals

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 1:51 PM EST

President Obama announced his response to the Newtown massacre today:

At a White House event at noon, Mr. Obama announced plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and new gun trafficking laws to crack down on the spread of weapons across the country.

This is mostly just a service post. This is the big news of the day, so it probably deserves a placeholder that gives everyone a chance to comment. I don't have much to say about it myself, though. It's about what everyone expected, and unless someone tells me how this proposal—or even the merest shadow of this proposal—passes the House, I don't see how there's any chance of action. But that may just be some lingering pessimism caused by yelling at my computer for most of the morning, so I'll wait for others to chime in before I give up on this entirely.

Obama also released a set of 23 tyranny-breeding executive orders today, including the nomination of an ATF director. Clearly, this isn't the America it used to be. You can read the full set of executive orders here.

UPDATE: OK, here's a more optimistic take. Greg Sargent argues that "for all the focus on the politics of the assault ban, comprehensive improvement of the background check system is a higher priority for gun reform advocates, and is also a more achievable one." And Robert Spitzer argues that the precedent of Columbine provides a ray of hope:

Within weeks, Congress was enmeshed in consideration of a bill requiring background checks for all sales at gun show, a bar on unlicensed Internet gun sales and tougher gun crime penalties, among other provisions. Despite open hostility from the Republican leaders who controlled Congress, they yielded to public pressure — amplified by support from then-President Clinton — and brought bills to the floor of both houses. The measure passed in the Senate, but eventually lost in the House after tumultuous consideration. Republican leaders would have preferred to let the bills die quietly in committee, but yielded in the face of public outcry.

The bill didn't actually pass, but House leaders didn't refuse to even allow a vote. Perhaps Newtown will have the same effect, and perhaps there are still a few dozen Republicans who are willing to join with most Democrats to seriously tighten up background checks. Maybe. In any case, this might not be quite as impossible as I imagine.

Is the Housing Bubble Back?

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 1:16 PM EST

Yesterday I read a post by Karl Smith suggesting we might already be headed into a second housing bubble. His argument was a little convoluted, though, so I filed it in the back of my brain and continued with my day. This morning, though, I read this in the LA Times:

Southern California's housing market ended the year with sharp gains, rounding out the first solid year of sustained improvement after nearly five years of real estate malaise....The region's median home price registered a sizable 19.6% pop in December compared with the same month last year.

...."There is no possible way that number can be sustained nor should anybody look at that as a long-term trend," said Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA. "We haven't shifted from bust back to bubble, and nobody should think we have, and nor likely will we."

Hmmm. A 20 percent gain? Sounds pretty bubblish to me! I guess time will tell whether Smith or Gabriel has the better of this story.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 12:19 PM EST

I'm having a computer meltdown this morning. Apologies. Posting will resume as soon as I figure out what's going on.

UPDATE: Well, that was damn peculiar. But everything appears to be fixed now after a morning of installing, uninstalling, reinstalling, and moving files around one by one. Time will tell whether I really recovered everything or not.

Lead and High School Graduation Rates

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 10:13 PM EST

Harvard University economist Richard Murnane has a new paper out trying to estimate the high school graduation rate over time—something that turns out to be surprisingly hard—and comes up with the chart on the right. Basically, graduation rates declined starting around 1975 and then started to rise again around 2000. Murnane finds the increase since 2000 to be a bit puzzling, and Matt Yglesias, among others, wonders if this might be an effect of reduced lead exposure:

The falling graduation rate was a bit of a fake puzzle since in objective terms the economic reward to staying in school was rising during this time. But obviously teenagers are often short-sighted in their behavior, so it wasn't a real puzzle. But if teenagers mysteriously started getting less short-sighted at around the same time they started growing up in less lead-poisoned times that certainly seems suggestive.

When I was doing research for my lead article, I stayed focused pretty sharply on violent crime. For that reason, I don't have a lot of insight to share on this. But there are a couple of things I can say:

  • The effect of lead on IQ, mental retardation, and school performance is very well established. More established than its effect on violent crime. So we shouldn't be surprised to find a connection between lead exposure in small children and high school graduation rates 18 years later.
  • That said, lead exposure started to rise in the late 40s. If it had a negative effect on graduation rates, you'd expect to see it starting in the mid-60s. Instead, Murnane shows graduation rates starting to fall in the mid-70s. Likewise, you'd expect to see graduation rates start to bounce back in the early 90s, but Murnane shows them rising in the early aughts. Roughly speaking, if lead is the culprit his numbers seem off by about ten years.

That said, I'd caution that there's a very specific reason you might not see anything in the data even if lead is playing a role in graduation rates. Here's why. Lead is something that nudges the entire population in a bad direction (lower IQ, higher aggression, etc.). For most people, the effect is barely noticeable. But for a small number, who are on the edge already, it nudges them over the edge. In the case of violent crime, it might have pushed an additional 2-3 percent of the teenage population over the edge into a life of crime. But since only a small percentage of the population commits violent crimes in the first place, an effect like this could double or triple the crime rate, and this is something that would show up like a beacon in the data.

Education is just the opposite. If the dropout rate is, say, 20 percent or so, and lead increases that by 2-3 percent, that's a very small effect that could easily be swamped by other factors, including measurement error. It's much harder to tease this out of the data, no matter how good the data is. In fact, it's small enough that it might be impossible.

So the chances are that we'll never know for sure how big the effect of lead exposure has been on high school graduation rates. Given what we know about lead, it's a good bet that it did have an effect in the postwar era. We'll just never know how much.