Kevin Drum - January 2013

Building Better Kids, Vocabulary Edition

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 6:56 PM EST

Over at City Journal, E.D. Hirsch argues that the most important function of education is vocabulary development:

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

....Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.”

....Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems.

I don't actually have an independent opinion about this, but my mother, the former fourth-grade teacher turned ESL teacher, has become convinced that vocabulary is indeed the single most important key to learning. So I'm linking to this article for her. If Mom says vocabulary development is key, then by God, I'm going to make you all read about it.

So how do we go about building vocabulary? Hirsch has a bunch of suggestions, but here's one that leapt out at me:

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.

Well. This certainly appeals to my biases. No, wait. Let's say that in a more sophisticated way. My Bayesian priors suggest that these aren't just spurious correlations, but plausibly causal agents. Vocabulary, baby!

(But seriously. There really is a lot of evidence that learning during our very early years is crucially important. See Jon Cohn's "The 2-Year Window" for more.)

The whole piece is interesting. As I said, I don't have a deep understanding of this subject, and I'm not asking you to buy into everything Hirsch says. But it's worth a read. Via Sullivan.

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Raw Data: Do You Pay Higher Taxes Than You Did 50 Years Ago?

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 3:13 PM EST

In my post this morning about government intrusion into our lives, I casually mentioned that we pay higher taxes than we did 50 years ago. I got some pushback on this, so I figured I should check my facts. That turned out to be surprisingly hard.

First off: federal taxes. We all know that top marginal rates have gone down. They were about 90 percent in 1960, compared to 39.6 percent today. At the same time, payroll taxes have gone up. The Medicare tax, for example, didn't even exist in 1960. So what does the median look like? The best I could find was a table from the Tax Policy Center that shows combined federal taxes for a family of four with a few specific assumptions. The chart on the right shows federal taxes for a median family of four over the past 50 years.

Next: state taxes. I can't really find anything reasonable here. The best I can do is the chart on the right, which shows total state and local spending as a percent of total income. Since states are generally required to run balanced budgets, this should correspond reasonably well to tax rates. What's more, since state and local taxes tend to be either flat or regressive, this probably represents median tax payments fairly well too. Still, take it for a very rough guess, not gospel.

If you put these two charts together, they suggest that the average tea partier does, in fact, pay higher taxes than she did 50 years ago: a little more in federal taxes and substantially more in state and local taxes. Overall, the combined median tax burden has increased from about 20 percent to 28 percent.

If I can find a better estimate somewhere, I'll let you know. For now, this provides a rough-and-ready tax picture of the past half century.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post I mixed apples and oranges by using federal tax rates and state spending as a percent of GDP. The state figures should be percentages of income. I've corrected the text and the bottom chart.

(Almost) Nobody Is Serious About the Deficit

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 2:13 PM EST

Michael Kinsley writes today that deficit hawk Pete Peterson and deficit dove Paul Krugman actually agree with each other: we need more spending now, while the economy is weak, but in the long term we need to rein in the deficit.

They just approach this solution from opposite directions. Peterson wants a balanced budget and only grudgingly acknowledges the need for stimulus. Krugman wants the stimulus and only grudgingly acknowledges that there are limits: You can't borrow forever. Nevertheless, the two men — representing opposite ends of the spectrum in this debate — agree on how we should proceed.

Kinsley is exaggerating for rhetorical effect here, but there's a kernel of truth to this. So if we (almost) all agree that the long-term deficit needs to be controlled, why is there such a massive difference of opinion about whether we should start now vs. putting off the hard decisions until the economy is fully recovered? Neil Irwin takes on this question with a short guide to "why the economics crowd isn't as nervous about deficits and debt as the Washington punditocracy." Then he follows this up with the flip side: the best arguments the political class has for being more nervous about debt than the economics crowd.

It's worth a read, but I'd like to add two bullet points about why the political class is really more nervous about debt than the economists are:

  • For conservatives: They aren't. They just don't like spending lots of money on poor people. Their real desire is to cut welfare spending, and deficit hawkery is a handy excuse for this.
  • For centrists/lefties: They accept the economic argument in theory, but are more attuned to practical politics than economists are. The idea that we can safely ease the pressure for action on the debt today, but still count on politicians to virtuously cut borrowing in the future, strikes them as laughable. We're humans, not Vulcans.

I'm not much of a deficit hawk. But I cop to taking the long-term deficit seriously, and I doubt very much that it will ever get reined in without applying enormous, sustained pressure to the political class. My biggest problem, then, isn't so much that this pressure is being applied, but that it's being applied to the wrong place. There's nothing much we can (or should) do about the aging of America: we just need to pay for it, whether we like it or not. And discretionary spending isn't on an upward trajectory, so it shouldn't be sucking up so much of our attention. It's all healthcare, baby. If all of the pressure on the deficit were being applied to serious proposals for reining in healthcare spending, in an effort to get U.S. spending levels down to those prevailing in socialist Europe, I'd probably applaud. Unfortunately, virtually none of it is. We got a few new cost-containment initiatives in Obamacare, which might or might not work, complemented by some absurd hack-and-slash proposals from the Paul Ryan crowd, and that's about it. This is pretty much the exact opposite of serious.

The Human Cost of Refusing to Expand Medicaid

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 12:01 PM EST

HHS has announced an exemption to Obamacare's individual mandate:

As the Obama administration took new steps Wednesday to implement the healthcare law's individual mandate, it clarified an exemption for people whose governors don't take part in the expanded Medicaid program....Notably, HHS clarified that the mandate doesn't apply to people who are eligible for Medicaid but live in states that don't take part in the law's Medicaid expansion.

Right. If you're so poor that you qualify for Medicaid, but your state's Republican governor refuses to allow you to have Medicaid coverage, the federal government won't demand that you pay for private coverage instead. This is mere common sense, since such people don't have the money in the first place. Ed Kilgore puts this in human terms:

By my rough back-of-the-envelope calculation from Kaiser Family Foundation numbers, there are about 4 million of such unlucky duckies in the 10 states that are pretty clearly not going to participate in the Medicaid expansion, a number that could jump to well over 5 million if Rick Scott manages to keep Florida out as well....So what do they care about the injustice of this coverage hole? Not a thing, clearly.

Nope, not a thing.

Freedom Now vs. Freedom in the Past

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 10:02 AM EST

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I happened to be thinking about the question of whether we're more or less free than we used to be, say, 50 years ago or so. The usual answer, of course, is that government at all levels now intrudes into every facet of daily life, which makes us less free. And yet, speaking for myself, I very rarely find myself prohibited from doing something I want to do. In practice, I'm pretty damn free.

So which is it? Less free, more free, or no real difference? First, I want to make a few stipulations:

  • If you're black, or gay, or disabled, or female, you're a helluva lot freer than you were 50 years ago. Let's acknowledge that and put civil rights to the side for now.
  • I think it's unquestionably more onerous to start up and run a business than in the past. We can argue about whether that's good or bad, but again, let's put that to the side. I want to focus on personal freedom.
  • I'm not interested in whether 2013 is "better" than 1963. Obviously we're freer to send text messages and ship packages overnight in 2013 because, you know, that stuff was impossible 50 years ago.

So the focus here is on regulatory freedom, things the government makes harder or easier on individuals. Here are some examples to give you an idea of what I'm thinking about:

Ways in which you were less free 50 years ago:

  • Most shops were closed on Sunday, thanks to blue laws.
  • You stood a good chance of being drafted into the military.
  • X-rated movies were illegal, and movies in general were more heavily censored.
  • Travel to foreign countries was more onerous (getting visas and other travel documents was a huge pain).
  • It was harder to procure birth control, and abortion was illegal.
  • Owning gold was illegal.
  • Casino gambling was banned nearly everywhere.
  • It was harder to buy and smoke marijuana.
  • You could not bank across state lines or get more than 5¼ percent interest on your savings.

Ways in which you are less free today:

  • There are lots of places where you can't smoke a cigarette.
  • Boarding an airplane is more hassle, and just generally, there are more security-related restrictions on our daily lives.
  • You can't dump hazardous crap anywhere you want.
  • The permitting process for building on your property is generally harder. (If you live on the coast in California, it's way harder.)
  • Buying a gun requires a background check and, sometimes, a waiting period.
  • You have to wear a seat belt when you drive.
  • Your taxes are higher.
  • It's harder to buy raw milk.
  • As of next January, you will be required to buy health insurance.

I hope this gives the flavor of what I'm looking for: legal and regulatory hurdles that affect us in our daily lives. What else have you got along these lines?

Quote of the Day: There Are Lots of Lies About Weight Loss Out There

| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 2:43 AM EST

From David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine:

False and scientifically unsupported beliefs about obesity are pervasive in both scientific literature and the popular press.

Roger that. More here. In a nutshell: pretty much nothing works. The odds are strong that you will never lose weight other than temporarily. I am the poster child for the truth of this.

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Chart of the Decade: Corporations are Pessimistic About Future Growth

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 6:53 PM EST

Ezra Klein posted this chart today showing the steady accumulation of corporate cash and reserves over the past 15 years. I'd like to nominate it for chart of the decade or something. "Why corporations are holding so much more cash is an interesting mystery," says Ezra, but I think it's the key mystery of the past couple of decades. Total liquid assets held by nonfinancial corporations have increased from 7.7 percent of GDP to 11.3 percent of GDP.

Why? Why are corporations increasingly unable to find anything interesting to do with their cash in the real world? Why are they implicitly so pessimistic about opportunities for future growth? Is this the financial smoking gun for Tyler Cowen's "great stagnation" thesis?

I'm not sure. But for 15 years the people with money to bet have been betting that they'll get better returns investing in financial instruments than they will by investing in expansion of existing products and the invention of new ones. Until we figure out why, we're going to be stuck with a combination of sluggish growth and financial bubbles as far as the eye can see.

Is the Conservative Fever Starting to Break?

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 4:13 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan thinks there's been a tectonic shift since Barack Obama's reelection:

It's not just the return to Clinton tax rates for the very wealthy; it's a real cultural shift as well. In the last week, we have seen the Boy Scouts back off a national policy of excluding openly gay scouts and scout-masters (which means the Mormon hierarchy must have not made too big a fuss); we have Tom Tancredo almost smoking a joint in public (don't make a bet with him on anything in the future); we have Sean Hannity's ratings plummeting; we see gay couples included in the president's comprehensive immigration reform; we have Limbaugh edging ever-so-slightly toward Rubio on immigration.

That chart does surprise me. Not because Obama's favorables are up five points. That seems like fairly standard inaugural honeymoon stuff. But his unfavorables are down ten points. Some of that is honeymoon stuff too, and it will wash out soon enough. Still, it's a big drop, and it suggests that maybe a bit of the fever has broken on the right. Maybe.

In any case, this is why immigration reform needs to happen soon if it's going to happen at all. And as near as I can tell, it's all in Marco Rubio's hands now. If he can persuade enough Republicans to take a deep breath and support a compromise measure—and if he can keep the conservative punditocracy from flipping out over it—it has a good chance of passing both Senate and House. If not, probably not. I don't think McCain and Graham can do it on their own.

It's OK to Torture, But Not OK to Talk About Torture

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 2:28 PM EST

James Pohl, the Army colonel running the trial of accused 9/11-conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is not pleased. Someone—it's not clear who, but it sure isn't Pohl—is turning the audio feed of the hearing on and off. The feed was cut off yesterday when defense attorney David Nevin mentioned that portions of the hearing would be held in secret, and it wasn't immediately obvious who had done it:

There was one thing that Pohl was clear about: what Nevin had been saying when he was cut off was not secret at all. That someone apparently thought it should be is likely due to its proximity to the question of torture—a subject that has distorted the proceedings profoundly, the white noise reverberating through it all, cutting off a moral as well as legal conversation.

Welcome to military commission hearings in the world's greatest democracy, now all but impossible to hold fairly because of our history of torturing suspects. Do you feel ill yet?

Lindsey Graham Continues His Temper Tantrum Over Benghazi

| Wed Jan. 30, 2013 1:49 PM EST

ThinkProgress reports that Sen. Lindsey Graham has decided to continue his spectacular temper tantrum over Benghazi, telling Fox News last night, "I haven’t forgotten about Benghazi. Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view." He's not using this in its idiomatic meaning, either. He literally seems to think that Hillary Clinton has cleverly wriggled out from under a Murder One conviction via some kind of Machiavellian trickery.

Next up in Graham's Benghazi crosshairs is defense secretary Leon Panetta. Graham has now decided that he won't rest until Panetta testifies too, and to make sure that happens he's going to block Chuck Hagel's SecDef nomination until he's got Panetta sweating under the klieg lights. "Why would we not want to understand what happened during the attack itself?" he asked Greta Van Susteren rhetorically. "How could our secretary — what happened for seven hours? Why were there no military assets available on September the 11th?"

This is very close to literal insanity. Graham knows perfectly well that these questions have been answered, and he knows perfectly well that Panetta won't tell him anything he doesn't already know. So why is he putting on this performance? My theory is simple: Graham likes being a maverick, but voters in South Carolina don't really want a maverick as their senator. They want a 100 percent ACU-certified hard-right conservative. Since Graham doesn't want to give them that, he has to compensate for it with periodic high-profile eruptions that demonstrate the kind of spittle-flecked hatred of Barack Obama his constituents want. It makes up for his occasional apostasy over climate change or immigration, and shows that he's really one of them even if he does have a few peculiar pet causes they don't understand.

Either that or he really is crazy. I guess I'm not entirely sure which.