Kevin Drum - May 2013

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 May 2013

| Fri May 31, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

Today we're back to quiltblogging. The quilter-in-chief is helping out with the photography by waving a finger in the general direction of the catbloggee-in-chief.

This is a Mystery Quilt. Here's how this works. Apparently you get instructions for making it a bit at a time. First, you get instructions on what fabric to buy. Then you're told to do some cutting. Then some other cutting. And some stitching. Then some other stuff. Eventually, when you get to the final page of instructions, it all comes together.

Now, it seems to me that it's fine to call this a mystery quilt while it's being pieced together. But once it's done, shouldn't it be something else? When you receive the final page of instructions, shouldn't you slap your head and say Aha! That's what it is! I guess not.

In any case, this is a Debbie Caffrey pattern, machine pieced and hand quilted using 1930s reproduction fabrics. It was done some time ago, back when Marian still preferred hand quilting. No longer, though. Machine quilting, I'm told, has improved dramatically in recent years, and anyway, some time back Marian found a machine quilter she adores who now does all our quilting for us. She's really good (and has the backlog to prove it).

In other news, Grumpy Cat has landed a film deal. Seriously.

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Internal Polling Proves It: That First Debate Was a Disaster For Obama

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:57 PM EDT

As you may recall, last year Obama's poll numbers fell off a cliff after his first debate performance. However, I wrote a couple of posts suggesting that Obama's problems actually started about a week earlier: "In the ten days before the debate, Pollster shows Romney gaining 2.4 points and RCP shows Romney gaining 1.8 points."

However, although Romney's numbers started to improve before the debate, Obama's numbers didn't start to fall until after the debate. Today, Josh Green gets his hands on internal Obama campaign polling that shows just how dramatic the drop was. The Obama organization surveyed 10,000 people per night in swing states, so their polling was far more accurate than the smaller tracking polls of outfits like Gallup. There are four main turning points:

  • Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate (or perhaps something else around the same time) produced a monthlong slide in Obama's numbers, capped by a small but sharp drop during the Republican convention.
  • The Democratic convention produced a sharp uptick.
  • The 47 percent video produced a sharp uptick.
  • The first debate was a disaster, wiping out nearly all the gains from the convention and the video.

In the end, though, what you see is a lot of regression to the mean. In June, Obama stood at about 52 percent in swing state polling. Things went up and down after that, and by early October he was back to 52 percent, where he stayed for the final month. It kinda makes you think we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and angst by not even having a campaign, doesn't it?

Social Security Report: Nothing Much Has Changed This Year

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:41 PM EDT

The previous post covered the latest actuarial report on Medicare finances. So how's Social Security doing this year? Answer: about the same. Last year the trustees projected that the Social Security trust fund would be exhausted in 2033. This year they project that it will be exhausted in 2033. The long-term actuarial deficit actually increased slightly, mostly due to changes in demographic assumptions, but the change was so small that it had no impact on medium-term projections.

Given the inherent uncertainty in this kind of stuff, it's wise not to dive too deeply into these numbers. The bottom line is that SSA is projecting slightly higher long-term costs than last year, but not enough to really affect anything over the next few decades.

UPDATE: This post originally said the long-term deficit increased slightly due to changes in economic assumptions. Apparently I dropped a line when I read Table II.D2. It was mostly changes in demographic assumptions that drove the higher expense rate. In particular, the 75-year window moved out a year. Sorry for the error. I've corrected the text.

Medicare's Future Looks a Little Better This Year

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:05 PM EDT

Today we get new reports on the health of Social Security and Medicare. Here's the bottom line on Medicare:

For the 75-year projection period, the HI actuarial deficit has decreased from 1.35 percent of taxable payroll, as shown in last year’s report, to 1.11 percent of taxable payroll. The more favorable outlook is primarily due to (i) lower projected spending....(ii) lower projected Medicare Advantage program costs....and (iii) a refinement in projection methods that reduces assumed per beneficiary cost growth.

I wouldn't make too much of this, since year-to-year changes are pretty sensitive to economic assumptions and to current law, which can change. In fact, the chart on the right shows just how much future projections rely on planned reductions in the Sustainable Growth Rate formula for payments to doctors, as well as other cost savings mandated by Obamacare. If we stick to our guns on these things, Medicare spending looks fairly restrained in the future. If we don't, it doesn't.

That Story You Knew Was Bullshit? Yeah, It Was Bullshit.

| Fri May 31, 2013 11:25 AM EDT

If you have a life, you may have missed Wednesday's blockbuster Daily Caller story about IRS commissioner Doug Shulman's 157 visits to the Obama White House. The number of White House visits over the past four years, the Caller reported breathlessly, "strongly suggests coordination by White House officials in the campaign against the president’s political opponents."

You may have noticed that I didn't bother blogging about this in real time. I was too busy trying to decide whether to slit my wrists or jump off a tall building, so I didn't have time. The story was obvious bullshit,1 of the kind the Caller specializes in, but who's got the time to figure out exactly how and why it's bullshit? And who was going to volunteer to spend a day of their lives they'd never get back debunking it?

Well, the answer turns out to be Garance Franke-Ruta. And the explanation for all those entries in the White House log, roughly speaking, is (a) the fact that Shulman was cleared for a meeting doesn't mean he actually attended a meeting, (b) nearly all of Shulman's meetings were related to a biweekly group working on healthcare reform, and (c) virtually all of the meetings took place in buildings other than the White House.

Is it worth clicking the link and reading the details? On the one hand, no, of course not. Are you serious? On the other hand, Franke-Ruta deserves to have her heroic efforts get some love. It's your call.

1I am, needless to say, using this word in its technically correct sense. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Hands, Ears, Brain Dominance, and Cell Phone Use

| Fri May 31, 2013 10:36 AM EDT

Austin Frakt, who apparently has a better memory for my blog than I do, emails today to draw my attention to a new study, "Hemispheric Dominance and Cell Phone Use," which is designed to figure out which ear we use when we're talking on cell phones. I was hoping this study would confirm that we left-eared folks are more charming and intelligent than the rest of you lot who use your right ears, but no such luck. In fact, the authors didn't really conclude much of anything. They found that 68 percent of right-handed people use their right ear and 72 percent of left-handed people use their left ear.

And, um, that was about it. As you probably know, right-handed people generally use the left side of their brains for language processing, and vice-versa for lefties. [Nope. See update below.] So the researchers wanted to find out if auditory hemispheric dominance (AHD) matched up with language hemispheric dominance (LHD). It doesn't: "Our study suggests that AHD may differ from LHD owing to the difference in handedness and cell phone ear use."

Alternatively, most people don't really care much which ear they use, and lefties use their left ear because they're more comfortable holding their phones in the left hands. Ditto in reverse for righties. All in all, I have to say that this study doesn't really tell us much, but I figured it was worth a follow-up. Original discussion here.

UPDATE: A meddling neuroscientist emails to tell me I'm a victim of old wives tales. Most people, including most lefties, process language on the left side of their brains. Right-brain language processing is a little more common among lefties, but it's still a small minority.

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Chart of the Day: Don't Get Your Knee Replaced on Friday

| Fri May 31, 2013 9:51 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, the chart on the right shows the relative odds of dying after elective surgery depending on the day of the week the surgery was done. Apparently doctors and staff are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Monday, but not so much on Friday. Or maybe it has to do with staffing levels. The authors conclude that it's all very mysterious: "The reasons behind this remain unknown, but we know that serious complications are more likely to occur within the first 48 hours after an operation, and a failure to rescue the patient could be due to well known issues relating to reduced and/or locum staffing (expressed as number and level of experience) and poorer availability of services over a weekend."

Anyway, this is just England. There's nothing to worry about here in America, I'm sure. All the same, maybe you want to schedule your next knee replacement for a nice lazy Tuesday, eh?

Quote of the Day: Cars Are Not Required to Have Drivers

| Fri May 31, 2013 12:05 AM EDT

From the New York Times, after telling us that California, Nevada, and Florida have legalized driverless cars:

They are not explicitly illegal in other states, because there is no law that says cars must have drivers.

This is just as the founders envisioned it. After all, they didn't require that horses have riders, did they?

Debt Doesn't Cause Low Growth. Low Growth Causes Low Growth.

| Thu May 30, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

Our story so far: Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have been telling us for the past few years that high levels of government debt are bad for future growth. But is that true? There's certainly a correlation between debt and growth, but is there causation? Or is there some third factor that causes both high debt and low growth?

There's already some evidence from UMass economist Arindrajit Dube that R&R get the causality backward: It's not that high debt causes low growth, but that low growth causes high debt. Today, Miles Kimball and Yichuan Wang of the University of Michigan take a closer look at this and try to tease out what's causing what. To start with, using R&R's dataset, they plot past growth rates vs. present debt for various time periods. This allows them to produce a formula that predicts debt levels based on past growth. Then they plot actual debt vs. predicted debt. The regression line running through the middle of the data tells us the average level of national debt you'd expect based on past growth rates:

Obviously some countries have higher debt than you'd expect based on their past growth, and some have lower debt. So the next question is: Do countries with higher than expected debt levels at a particular point in time have lower future growth than countries with lower than expected debt? If debt truly has an independent effect on growth, you'd certainly think so.

But it turns out this isn't the case. Not even slightly. Debt simply doesn't matter. Basically, low growth in the past predicts low growth in the future. That's all there is to it. However, low growth in the past also predicts high debt, which can fool you into thinking it's the debt that's causing low growth in the future. But it's not.

Now, Kimball and Wang are still no fans of high debt. If your debt is high compared to other countries, the bond markets will probably punish you. What's more, "the big problem with debt is that the only ways to avoid paying it back or paying interest on it forever are national bankruptcy or hyper-inflation. And unless the borrowed money is spent in ways that foster economic growth in a big way, paying it back or paying interest on it forever will mean future pain in the form of higher taxes or lower spending." It's possible, of course, to spend money in ways that foster economic growth, but they believe that most conventional stimulus spending isn't spent that way and therefore isn't very useful.

Nonetheless, it isn't harmful either. "Our bottom line from this analysis, and the thinking we have been able to articulate above, is this: Done carefully, debt is not damning. Debt is just debt."

Our Military Intervention Record in the Middle East Is "Dismal"

| Thu May 30, 2013 2:01 PM EDT

John McCain went to Syria recently and, among other things, apparently ended up posing for a photograph with rebels who had kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims. I think Joe Klein draws the right conclusion:

I don’t blame McCain for this. It’s hard to advance a trip into rebel territory....The point is: We just don’t know these places well enough to go over and draw grand conclusions about policy. In a way, McCain’s trip is a perfect metaphor for the problem of involving ourselves with the Syrian rebels. We may be siding with the greater evil. We may be throwing fuel on a fire that could consume the region. Our track record when it comes to such things is dismal.

Obviously McCain didn't do this deliberately. But he's been insisting for years that we can tell the good guys from the bad guys in Syria, and this incident suggests that we can't. Not reliably, anyway. Even McCain can't. As Klein says, our track record on this stuff is pretty dismal. President Obama is right to be very, very cautious about committing American military aid to this fight.