Kevin Drum - January 2013

Lead and Crime: Is Correlation Also Causation?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 10:50 PM PST

A big chunk of the evidence linking gasoline lead emissions to violent crime rates is based on statistical analysis. This naturally leads to the criticism that correlation is not causation, so we don't really know if lead caused crime rates to go up and down. If you're curious to learn more about this, Rick Nevin has just posted a short paper titled "Lead and Crime: Why this correlation does mean causation." Here's a small excerpt that addresses just the statistical evidence:

The key statistical issue that needs to be addressed by the correlation-never-means-causation crowd is whether they honestly believe that:

  • The observed association between lead used in paint and USA murder rates from 1901 to 1960 with a time lag close to the peak age of homicide offending was a coincidence; 
  • The association between USA gasoline lead and violent crime from 1964-1998 with a similar time lag was another coincidence;
  • The “experimental evidence” from violent crime since 1998 (including a 45% drop in the juvenile violent crime arrest rate from 1998-2011) tracking earlier trends in lead exposure is a coincidence;  
  • Analysis of crime in nine nations shows the same consistent relationship between lead exposure and crime trends through 2002, with statistical best-fit lags that reflect the peak age of offending for each crime category, by coincidence;
  • This consistent relationship within every nation studied happens to explain otherwise bewildering changes over time in USA and Canada crime rates relative to Britain, France, and Australia, by coincidence;
  • Experimental evidence from international crime trends since 2002 tracking earlier trends in lead exposure in every nation is also a coincidence.

There's much more at the link, all based on a 9-part test proposed in 1965 by Austin Bradford-Hill for distinguishing mere correlation from true causation. Nevin examines a broad range of evidence, including statistical studies, longitudinal studies, medical studies, imaging studies, and more. It's worth a look if you're still skeptical about the lead-crime connection.

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Am I the Only Person Left Who Hates Anti-Aliasing?

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 8:00 PM PST

I'm not trying to pick on the New Republic here, but I'm curious about something. They launched a redesigned website yesterday, and here's how the main text font renders on my PC:

Why does it look so bad? Because I'm running Windows with ClearType turned off. Does anyone else do this, or am I the only person left on the planet who finds ClearType intolerable for day-to-day use? If I'm the only one, then I understand why some magazines don't bother optimizing their body fonts for either mode (it's not just TNR). But if I'm not the only one, then why not use a font that works for everyone?

PREEMPTIVE TECH NOTE: Yes, my monitor is running at its native resolution. Yes, I know how to set up ClearType. Yes, I know that most people prefer the mushy look of anti-aliased type. But I don't, and never have. I'm just curious about whether I'm a lone holdout at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if I am. ClearType has been turned on by default in Windows for many years now, and my guess is that very few people these days realize it's something they could turn off even if they wanted to.

Hooray! Newegg Defeats a Patent Troll.

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:22 PM PST

From Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng, on why they went to court over a patent on the "shopping cart" feature of their e-commerce site:

We basically took a look at this situation and said, "This is bullshit."

I'd say that this pithy comment is both legally and technically precise. And good for Newegg for fighting this out to the bitter end. Amazon and other e-retailers had already caved in to the patent troll who was extorting them over this. Also: good for the appellate judge who ruled that the patents in question were invalid on grounds of obviousness.

My only regret is that Newegg was forced to rely for its defense on the fact that CompuServe had some prior art for something called the "CompuServe Mall." That shouldn't have been necessary. This case should have been thrown out with extreme prejudice no matter who had done what before. There are just a limited number of ways of doing stuff like this, and a combination of product IDs, database entries, and cryptography hardly counts as an inspired invention.

This whole thing was ridiculous but, unfortunately, all too typical. It's a perfect example of why it's time to ditch software patents completely.

Federal Spending Isn't Out of Control, But It's Not Quite Stable Either

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 11:10 AM PST

Bruce Bartlett argues that federal spending really isn't out of control:

Getting back to the chart, we see that spending for every single government program going forward is remarkably stable as a percentage of GDP. Those who complain loudest about spending and deficits nearly always base their concerns on projections of nominal spending that are unadjusted for inflation, growth of the population or growth of the economy. This is intellectually dishonest.

In fact, virtually all the growth in projected spending comes not from entitlements or giveaways to the poor and lazy, as Republicans would have us believe, but rather from interest on the debt.

And here's the chart:

Bruce is basically right, but I want to point out another way of looking at this. Suppose we raise taxes in order to flatten out interest spending. What are we left with a decade or two from now? Answer: federal spending at roughly 23 percent of GDP.

On a chart with a long timeline, that looks pretty flat. But in fact, this is what all the shouting is about. Should federal spending be limited to around 19 percent of GDP—Paul Ryan's preferred goal—or should we accept the fact that society is aging and we're eventually going to need to spend 23 percent of GDP whether we like it or not? I think the latter makes a lot more sense, but we all need to understand that this really is what the argument is about. An additional four or five percent of GDP won't bankrupt us, but it's not chickenfeed either. If that's the spending trajectory we want, we need to persuade the public that it's necessary, not pretend that it doesn't exist.  

Goodbye Sarah, We'll Miss You. Sort of.

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 10:24 AM PST

Paul Waldman pens a bittersweet farewell to Sarah Palin, now that she'll no longer be appearing on Fox News:

There are few political figures remotely as interesting as Palin, with her unmatched combination of crazy ideas, absolute confidence despite a level of understanding of public affairs that would embarrass an average seventh-grader, and a nearly inexplicable white-hot charisma.

....There really should be a long German word referring to the feeling liberals got whenever Palin said something even more idiotic and offensive than she had before, that combination of shock, disgust, and satisfaction that comes from getting yet more evidence that one of the other side's leading figures is such an epic nincompoop. Every time, you could almost hear a thousand conservatives plant their faces in their hands.

Palin's theme was always resentment, the acid bile of the culture war. If you ever felt that you were looked down on by Northeastern elitists, or people with too much education, or condescended to by people who think small towns are rather boring and not the only soil from which morality and patriotism can grow, or laughed at by people who find The Purpose-Driven Life to be a less than profound theological text, Sarah Palin spoke for you. She luxuriated in her grievances—against the establishment, against the media, against everyone from the mightiest politician to the lowliest teenager who happened to knock up her daughter (as Levi Johnston put it at one point, "It's almost funny, that she's like, 46 years old, and she's battling a 19-year-old, and I'm winning"). Resentment was her instrument, her tool, her vehicle and her purpose.

Sarah Palin is to modern Republicans what Richard Nixon was to Republicans of the 60s. The resentment that Nixon tapped so brilliantly reached its peak under Ronald Reagan and then degenerated steadily over time. The downward path led through Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes, and freedom fries, finally reaching its debased apotheosis in Sarah Palin and the tea party. With her gone, it might be a sign that the long, twilight success of Nixonland as a political strategy is finally starting to fade. I think Rick Perlstein should write a few thousand well-chosen words on the subject.

Big Surprise: Yet Another Ed Reform Turns Out to be Bogus

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 9:55 AM PST

Do high schools with higher standards get better performance from their students? If you require everyone to take college prep classes, will more kids go to college? The San Jose school district has long been a poster child for this notion, but guess what? It turns out it was all a crock:

San Jose Unified has quietly acknowledged that the district overstated its accomplishments. And a Times analysis of the district's record shows that its progress has not, in fact, far outpaced many other school systems'....In 2000, before the college-prep program took effect, 40% of San Jose graduates fulfilled requirements for applying to University of California and Cal State University. In 2011, the number was 40.3%.

My cynicism about the ed reform community grows by leaps and bounds every time I read a story like this. And that's pretty often. Here's my advice for what you should do whenever you read an article about a school that's shown miraculous results by applying some reform or another (or by hiring a miracle worker of some stripe or another):

  1. Don't believe it if it's based on a single school or other small sample.
  2. Don't believe it if most of the evidence comes from the school itself.
  3. Don't believe it if the reform in question was put in place only a few years ago.
  4. Don't believe it if it hasn't been replicated elsewhere.
  5. Don't believe it unless it's been rigorously tested by academics who didn't already support the idea in the first place.
  6. And even if it passes all those tests, don't believe it anyway.

The number of ed reforms that hold up when the evidence is looked at critically seems to be tiny. The number that continue to work when they're scaled up seems to be tiny. The number that continue to show results all the way through high school seems to be tiny. The number that can withstand critical scrutiny seems to be tiny. And of the ones that are left, the cost to keep them up usually appears to be prohibitive.

I understand that I'm being too cynical here. I'm probably going to get the usual batch of emails from ed reformers telling me that there are too reforms that really and truly work. And I suppose there are. But I don't think you can go too far wrong by being almost boundlessly and annoyingly skeptical about this stuff. Don't worry about seeming unsophisticated. Just keep repeating that you don't believe it until and unless the evidence becomes simply overwhelming. You won't go too far wrong with that attitude.

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The Education of Barack Obama, Foreign Policy Edition

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 9:06 AM PST

New Republic owner Chris Hughes asks President Obama about how he "personally, morally" wrestles with the ongoing violence in Syria:

What I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity. And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.

Dan Drezner argues that this passage demonstrates that, for Obama, "national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays."

I don't read it that way at all. Rather, I think that over the past four years Obama has deeply internalized the practical limitations of American power. As Dan himself puts it a few paragraphs later, Obama's foreign policy views display an "increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change." I'd argue that this doesn't suggest so much a surrender of liberal values as it does simple common sense of the type we rarely see on either right or left.

I continue to be a bit gobsmacked about how little we seem to have learned from the past decade. The 2008 economic crash seems to have had close to no impact on how we view and regulate the financial system, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had close to no impact on how we view interventionism. Conservatives still want us to go to war against every bad guy who's ever sneered at us, and liberals still want us to intervene in every humanitarian crisis that springs up.

Obama seems to understand that this framework is obsolete. No matter what motivates you—realpolitik, humanitarianism, nationalism, whatever—interventionism doesn't make sense if it doesn't work. And the lesson of the past decade, at the very least, is that interventionism is really, really hard to do well, even if your bar for "well" is really, really low.

The first question for any kind of action in any sphere of human behavior is, will it work? If the answer is yes, then you can move on to arguments about when, whether, and what kind of action might be appropriate. But if the answer is no, all those arguments are moot. In the case of U.S. military interventions, the answer might not quite be an unqualified no, but it sure seems to be pretty damn close. This makes the rest of the argument futile.

Immigration Reform is Finally on the Agenda

| Sun Jan. 27, 2013 11:07 PM PST

The LA Times reports that the Senate's Gang of Eight—or whatever they're calling themselves—has agreed on a plan for comprehensive immigration reform:

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a plan to grant legal status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S....In terms of the number of people who would potentially receive legal status, it would be more than three times larger than the amnesty plan passed under President Reagan in 1986, which legalized about 3 million immigrants.

....The Senate proposal would allow most of those in the country illegally to obtain probationary legal status immediately by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. That would make them eligible to work and live in the U.S. They could earn a green card — permanent residency — after the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border has become secure, but might face a lengthy process before becoming citizens.

....Less-controversial provisions would tighten requirements on employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skilled jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master's degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.

The four Republican senators who have agreed to this framework are John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Jeff Flake. It's not clear how much clout these guys have with the rest of the Republican caucus, or how much clout Senate Republicans have with House Republicans. Still, as I mentioned last month, I wouldn't be surprised if the fiscal cliff and immigration reform are the sole exceptions to an all-obstruction-all-the-time strategy from House Republicans. They might not like it, but a sheer sense of self-preservation suggests that the GOP's best strategy is to pass something fairly quickly so that they can get immigration off the table as a political issue as soon as possible. Once that's done, they can at least get started on the task of mending their ruinously suicidal relationship with the Latino community.

On Tuesday, President Obama will unveil a competing immigration plan. After that the real haggling starts.

And on a political note, it's worth mentioning that Obama has probably played this issue about as well as he could have. His generally tough-minded approach toward immigration enforcement hasn't been popular on the left, but the unfortunate truth is that comprehensive reform was probably impossible until the flow of illegal immigrants was slowed down substantially. Tougher enforcement—which included building the fence, beefing up border patrols, pushing ahead with E-Verify, and escalating the number of deportations—has worked alongside a weak economy to slow illegal immigration to a crawl over the past four years, and this has steadily whittled away at the appeal of the immigration table pounders. Combine this with a Republican Party that desperately needs to stanch its bleeding among the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, and you finally have, for the first time in decades, a political climate that just might make immigration reform possible. But I doubt that this moment will last very long. This probably needs to happen in the next six months if it's going to happen at all.

Crime is Down in Britain. It's Not a Surprise.

| Sun Jan. 27, 2013 4:49 PM PST

Here's the latest crime news from the Guardian:

There has been a surprise 8% drop in crime across England and Wales, according to official figures, suggesting the long-term decline in crime since the mid-1990s has resumed.

As near as I can tell, crime declines are always a surprise to the folks who look for answers solely in social trends. But Britain's continuing decline isn't a surprise to everyone. Europe adopted unleaded gasoline in the mid-80s, and EU countries all showed drops in lead emissions in subsequent years. In Britain, lead emissions began to decline about a decade later than the United States, but they made up some of that gap via a much steeper drop. So, to the extent that the crime decline is a function of less lead exposure among children, they're about five years or so behind us. This means they probably still have a few years of crime decline ahead of them.

Commuting in Your Driverless Car

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 3:11 PM PST

In an email to Stuart Staniford yesterday about whether private car ownership is ever likely to be replaced by subscriptions to fleets of driverless cars, I told him, "I love arguments like this because there's exactly zero evidence either of us can bring to bear. So we can argue forever and never get anywhere!"

In other words, this is a perfect blog subject. Here's Atrios:

I'm not one who thinks the technology will ever really work in the way that some urbanists think it will work, but I could be wrong about that. What I'm not wrong about is the fact that we still face the peak driver/commuting problem. As long as most people essentially need a car for their daily commute, driverless cars won't really remake the world. You'll still need a one car per commuter fleet. Those fleets could be put to work doing other things in non-peak times, but the peak need will still be there. They'll just be a slightly better carshare or possibly slightly cheaper taxi for non-commuting trips.

I'd make a couple of points about this. First, commuting makes up less than half of all driving. So even if driverless cars don't do anything for commuting, they still might make a big dent in our other driving. If subscriptions to driverless fleets reduce car ownership by half, or even a quarter, that will be huge even if commuting doesn't change much.

Second, though, I think commuting will be changed. The hard part of carpooling right now is finding fellow passengers. With rare exceptions, it's not practical to round up a new carpool every day, so you need to find one or two people who (a) live near you, (b) work near you, (c) all work regular hours, and (d) all work the same regular hours. That's pretty hard.

Once they reach critical mass, fleets of driverless cars completely transform this. When you need a car, you click a smartphone app that immediately starts searching a central database for matches. As long as there are lots of people looking for rides—and drive time is precisely when lots of people are looking for rides—you have a pretty good chance of finding a match anytime you look for one. What's more, because the car is driverless, it has more flexibility: a human would want everyone to have destinations really close to each other, because the driver doesn't want to spend tons of extra time dropping everyone off. A driverless car doesn't care. If it has to drive a few extra miles, it's no big deal.

This is obviously better for the driver, since she can now read the paper or play Angry Birds instead of driving. It's also better for the passengers, who don't have to worry about being precisely on time every day and also don't have to worry about whether the other passengers are precisely on time. If you're running a little late, no big deal. If you work flex time, no big deal. If you have a doctor's appointment and need to leave for work an hour later than usual, no big deal.

Is this how things will evolve? I don't know. But the subscription idea works best precisely when a car service has a lot of people looking for rides at the same time. Given a guaranteed service time of X, some cars will end up with one person, others will end up with two or three or four. With a big statistical universe, this ends up being pretty stable, which means the car service has a pretty good idea of just how many cars it needs.

Will people want to keep a car of their own even if car services become cheap and easy to use? Maybe. But commuting is pretty much the last place where people care about having their own car. No matter what kind of car you own, commuting is just a drag. Nearly everyone would prefer to be ferried around as long as it's quick and convenient. In other words, peak usage isn't a problem here. Peak usage is precisely why commuting is likely to be the kind of driving most affected by driverless cars.