Kevin Drum - July 2013

Albertsons Is Dropping Its Loyalty Card Program. Unfortunately, They Seem to Be an Outlier.

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

A regular reader who likes to humor my hobbyhorses points me to a Time piece about the decline in loyalty card programs. Hooray! Unfortunately, I'm a little skeptical. Loyalty program membership has actually gone up substantially over the past couple of years, and the only real evidence of a decrease is in the supermarket sector, which I suspect was simply saturated. Time also cites the fact that Albertsons is discontinuing its loyalty card. Here's their explanation:

We found that tracking individual shopping habits isn’t as critical to our overall strategy as knowing what our customers in our neighborhoods are shopping for. Tracking individual purchases can be one way to do it, but it’s not the only way. Getting to know our customers in neighborhoods, learning each store like it’s our only store, and offering best-in-class customer service is as much of a differentiator.

Uh huh. I'm not sure what the real reason is, but this isn't it. This is just marketing hot air. I wonder what's really going on?

Time also quotes from a recently released Colloquy study of loyalty programs: "Savvy customers understand that loyalty programs gather and utilize customer data to make marketing decisions....If programs are not crystal-clear in providing benefit to the customer in exchange for that information, and are not clear in their privacy policy, consumers can back off from participating."

I'd love to believe this, but I have my doubts. Very few people seem to understand how supermarkets use and market their loyalty card data. And anyway, what isn't crystal clear about the benefits? You get discounts on the stuff you buy. That's about as clear as it gets. Finally, there's this:

At the same time, other supermarket companies are putting an even greater emphasis on loyalty programs—and the potential they give for customized marketing and personalized pricing. As CNBC and the Associated Press have reported, Safeway and Kroger’s, among others, have been stepping up efforts to use customer’s shopping histories to present them with personalized deals and coupons to boost spending. “There’s going to come a point where our shelf pricing is pretty irrelevant because we can be so personalized in what we offer people,” Safeway CEO Steve Burd said earlier this year, according to the AP.

Such a concept may strike some shoppers as being inherently unfair: How would you like paying twice as much for hamburgers or coffee than the person checking out in front of you? Then again, a scenario like that is likely to make you sign up for the loyalty program, which is sorta the point. Many customers will, in fact, love personalized pricing because it’ll make them feel special—like they’re getting a unique deal created just for them.

As far as I'm concerned, loyalty card programs have long since gone from being annoying to extortionate. At one time, they offered members a smallish discount. That might have annoyed me, but it wasn't a big deal. These days, however, they're used virtually as threats: allow us to track your buying habits in minute detail or else get stuck paying insanely high prices. The non-loyalty prices can sometimes be half again as much as the loyalty-card price. You have to keep a sharp eye out to avoid getting ripped off.

But despite what the Colloquy study says, nobody seems to care. In fact, most people seem to think I'm half-deranged for even grousing about this. I'm still waiting for the Edward Snowden of loyalty card programs to drop a few crates of secret documents on me, but until then, maybe I'll just give the subject a rest. Resistance is futile.

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A Plea for an End to Crappy Social Science Research

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 12:50 PM EDT

A new academic journal, the Journal of Experimental Political Science, says that it "embraces all of the different types of experiments carried out as part of political science research, including survey experiments, laboratory experiments, field experiments, lab experiments in the field, natural and neurological experiments." Andrew Gelman applauds, but with a caveat:

This looks good to me. There’s only one thing I’m worried about. Regular readers of the sister blog will be aware that there’s been a big problem in psychology, with the top journals publishing weak papers generalizing to the population based on Mechanical Turk samples and college students, lots of researcher degrees of freedom ensuring there will be no problem finding statistical significance, and with the sort of small sample sizes that ensure that any statistically significant finding will be noise, thus no particular reason to expect that patterns in the data will generalize to the larger population.

....Just to be clear: I’m not saying that the scientific claims being made in these papers are necessarily wrong, it’s just that these claims are not supported by the data. The papers are essentially exercises in speculation, “p=0.05” notwithstanding.

And I’m not saying that the authors of these papers are bad guys. I expect that they mostly just don’t know any better. They’ve been trained that “statistically significant” = real, and they go with that.

Call me naive, but WTF? I have no training at all, and I'm keenly aware of the problems Gelman is talking about. How is it possible to complete a PhD program and not have this kind of thing drilled into your consciousness for all time? Can there really be people out there who are being trained that "statistically significant" = real, and nothing more? It's mind boggling. Are there any PhD programs out there that would would fess up to this?

Of course, there are journals who publish some of these papers, so apparently it goes beyond just PhD programs.

In any case, my view is that if you see the phrase "Mechanical Turk" anywhere in a paper, your BS radar should instantly go into high alert. It's possible that there's a reasonable justification for using MT, but not often. I'd be pretty happy to see it banned entirely from allegedly scholarly research.

Why Mosquitoes Love Some People More Than Others

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 12:13 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal asks an expert why some people get attacked by mosquitoes more than others:

Mosquitoes find their mammalian prey through sensing the heat and carbon dioxide mammals emit…Mosquitoes are also guided by their sense of smell…"Mosquitoes are attracted to our human odor, and that is largely a consequence of the bacteria on our skin," says Dr. Zwiebel. The "flora and fauna on our skin" also smell appetizing to mosquitoes, says Dr. Zweibel, and these can increase when we sweat or spend a lot of time outdoors.

I never realized that mosquitoes played favorites until a few years ago, when I was at a spring conference on St. Simons Island in Georgia where I and my fellow progressives plotted how to take over the banking system. (After some false starts, it eventually inspired me to write this piece.) One evening I was sitting next to Mark Schmitt and noticed that he looked like he had the measles or something. I had a few mosquito bites myself, but he must have had a hundred or so. He told me that mosquitoes had always found him very attractive. I guess he just has the wrong flora and fauna.

Apparently there's no good answer if you're one of the unlucky few. In the meantime, use DEET.

Inflation Yet Again Stays Low

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 10:36 AM EDT

How's the inflation monster doing these days? Here's the latest from the BLS:

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.5 percent in June on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 1.8 percent before seasonal adjustment.

The gasoline index rose sharply in June and accounted for about two thirds of the seasonally adjusted all items change....The index for all items less food and energy increased 0.2 percent in June, the same increase as in May....The index for all items less food and energy has risen 1.6 percent over the last year, the smallest 12-month change since June 2011.

Rising oil prices are showing up in higher gasoline prices, and that's about it. Everything else is well under control and core inflation is at its lowest rate in two years. So maybe we should do something about unemployment instead, instead of worrying that it's always 1979 all over again?

Breaking: Filibuster Lives to See Another Day

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 9:46 AM EDT

From the Washington Post:

Senators have reached a tentative deal on averting the constitutional showdown over confirming President Obama's agency nominations. "We may have a way forward on this, I feel fairly confident," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday morning. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) signaled enough Republicans would support breaking a filibuster on the first test vote on the showdown, for Obama's pick to lead the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau. "I think everyone will be happy," Reid said. The deal would not be finalized until later Tuesday afternoon.

Too bad. I'm sure that President Obama just wanted his nominees confirmed, but I wanted to see a crack in the filibuster dam. Now we won't get it.

UPDATE: It's official now. Dave Weigel describes the final deal here.

Is Harry Reid About to Go Nuclear on the Filibuster?

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 10:26 PM EDT

Harry Reid is pissed. Republicans are filibustering everyone in sight, and he's finally had enough. They've filibustered a Medicare director. They've filibustered a Fed nominee. They've filibustered a secretary of Defense and a CIA director. They've filibustered a head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They've filibustered two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. And those are just the filibusters that have been high-profile enough to generate headlines.

So now he's threatening to use the nuclear option to do away with filibusters of presidential nominations. This is by far the most defensible change in the filibuster rules, since it doesn't affect legislation and it doesn't affect judges who hold their seats for life. It only allows the president to staff his own administration with the people he wants.

Or, in some cases, to merely have the federal government operate at all. You see, the nominees that really have Reid seeing red are the ones for the NLRB and the CFPB. Republicans don't actually have any special objection to any of them. They've just decided to shut down those two agencies via filibuster. The NLRB can't legally operate at all without a quorum, and several important CFPB functions also can't be implemented at all unless the agency has a director. So these agencies of the US government—agencies duly created by Congress and signed into law by the president—are effectively being eliminated by a minority of one house of Congress.

That's what's different this time around. Legislation has been filibustered for a long time. Judges have been filibustered for a long time. Republicans are doing it more now than in the past, but they're not doing something that's fundamentally new. Executive branch nominees are different. Filibusters of presidential appointments have been rare, and they've never been used to shut down entire arms of the government.

So Reid is finally fighting back, and good for him. Senators of both parties met informally Monday night in the Old Senate Chamber, but it's unclear if they made any progress toward a compromise. Reid himself seemed pessimistic, but apparently other senators thought an agreement was possible. For the moment, though, Reid is still planning to hold votes Tuesday on the stalled presidential nominees, with a promise that if they aren't confirmed he's going to go nuclear. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: In the end, Republicans caved on the CFPB and the NLRB nominees, and Reid agreed to leave the filibuster alone. Dave Weigel has the details here.

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FISA Court Agrees to Publish Secret Decision

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 4:43 PM EDT

Do you need more evidence that Edward Snowden has made a difference? A few days after Snowden's disclosures, Yahoo filed a motion with the FISA court to declassify and publicly release its 2008 decision that forced Yahoo and others to turn over material to the NSA. Here's what happened today:

Will this lead to any big policy changes? I don't know. But it's something. And it wouldn't have happened without Snowden.

Yet More Evidence That You Should Stay Away From Hospitals on Weekends

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 4:20 PM EDT

A couple of months ago I blogged about a study showing that your odds of dying after elective surgery are a lot higher if the surgery is done on a Friday or a weekend. Most likely, this is due to lower staffing levels during the 48 hours after surgery, which is when most complications set in. The moral of the story was pretty simple: if you have a choice, get your surgery done between Monday and Thursday.

Today brings further evidence of the folly of going to the hospital on the weekend. This one comes courtesy of Aaron Carroll, who points us to a study of infants admitted to pediatric hospitals with a diagnosis of failure to thrive. Basically, this means that the baby isn't gaining weight as quickly as normal, or is even losing weight, and I gather from Aaron's post that it's rarely an emergency situation. However, it involves lots of tests and consults, and those tests and consults often aren't available on weekends. As a result, nothing happens until all the doctors and technicians return to work on Monday.

The chart on the right shows how this works out. If your baby is admitted on a weekday, the average length of stay is five days and the average cost is about $9,000. But if your baby is admitted on a weekend, the average length of stay is seven days and the average cost is about $13,000. For all practical purposes, it looks like the babies just sit around over the weekend and then start getting treated on Monday.

Obviously you don't always have a choice of what day you go to the hospital. But if you do, don't go on a weekend. Stick to weekdays, when there are actually doctors around to treat you.

Crafty Obama Plans to Give Undocumented Immigrants the Right to Vote in 2014

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 1:57 PM EDT

Courtesy of Steve Benen, here is Michele Bachmann explaining why immigration reform is a bad idea for Republicans:

I think the president, even by executive order, can again wave his magic wand before 2014 and he'd say now all of the new, legal Americans are going to have voting rights.

Why do I say that? He did it in 2012. Do you remember? Anyone who was here as a Latina under age 30, he said, "You get to vote."

What? He decides you get to vote? If he did it 2012, know — take it to the bank — he'll do in 2014.

Does anyone have any idea what Bachmann is talking about? This is obviously a reference to the mini-DREAM executive order that Obama signed in 2012, but all that did was grant work permits and end deportations of undocumented immigrants who had come to the country before the age of 15. It wasn't just for Latinas and it had nothing to do with voting.

I know, I know: it's just Bachmann being Bachmann. But I'll bet that this becomes yet another an underground tea party "fact" within days. You'll be hearing it from your crazy uncle this Thanksgiving.

Yet Another Study Shows How Lead Exposure Can Produce More Violent Crime

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 11:12 AM EDT

The LA Times reports today on the latest study from the lab of Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist who investigates the roots of violent and antisocial behavior:

It began with a casual question that neuroscientist Kent Kiehl posed to a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory who had been conducting brain scans on New Mexico prison inmates. "I asked, 'Does ACC activity predict the risk of reoffending?'" Kiehl recalls, using the scientific shorthand for the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain structure associated with error processing.

The postdoctoral fellow, Eyal Aharoni, decided to find out. When he compared 96 inmates whose brains had been monitored while they performed a test that measures impulsiveness, he discovered a stark contrast: Those with low ACC activity were about twice as likely to commit crimes within four years of being released as those with high ACC activity.

Attentive readers will know why this caught my eye. The following passage comes from my story about the connection between lead and crime a few months ago. It's about a pair of MRI studies performed at the University of Cincinnati:

A second study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call "executive functions": emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility. One way to understand this, says Kim Cecil, another member of the Cincinnati team, is that lead affects precisely the areas of the brain "that make us most human."

Although I used "prefrontal cortex" as shorthand here, the precise part of the brain implicated in these studies was the anterior cingulate cortex. Cecil and his team found that lead exposure in children leads to a permanent loss of gray matter in the ACC, while Kiehl's team has discovered that low ACC activity increases the risk of recidivism. This linkage isn't surprising, given what we know about the functions of the ACC, but it's an unusually clear result that links ACC deterioration to criminal activity. Just thought I'd pass it along.