Kevin Drum - 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Lowly Period

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 10:34 PM EST

I long ago passed the age at which the odd linguistic turns of the young started taking me completely by surprise. In fact, I think I passed that age around the same time I got old enough to drink legally. I like to joke that I was born 55 years old, and only recently have I finally worked myself into my natural age. Except that I'm not sure it's really a joke.

Anyway. Punctuation! Let's talk about it??? It turns out that dropping the period at the end of text messages—initially for the purely technical reason that it was a pain in the ass on teensy little phone keyboards—has now become so standard that the smartphone generation actually takes offense when they see one:

“Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email. How and why did the period get so pissed off?

....“In the world of texting and IMing ... the default is to end just by stopping, with no punctuation mark at all,” Liberman wrote me. “In that situation, choosing to add a period also adds meaning because the reader(s) need to figure out why you did it. And what they infer, plausibly enough, is something like ‘This is final, this is the end of the discussion or at least the end of what I have to contribute to it.’”

How about that? It's like reading an anthropological field report, isn't it? "Be sure not to use periods at the end of your texts, as the natives have been known to get restless when they see one."

Luckily for me, I almost never text or IM, so I haven't been inadvertently offending people. Normally I do that by writing snarky blog posts that turn out to sound a little more hostile than I intended. But for the rest of you, start dropping those periods unless you want to come across as an imperious martinet. You. Have. Been. Warned.

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The Minimum Wage in America Is Pretty Damn Low

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 4:21 PM EST

Everyone's talking about the minimum wage today. I'm in favor of raising it, and I always have been, but a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a picture for you. Courtesy of the OECD, it shows the minimum wage in various rich countries as a percentage of the average wage. The United States isn't quite the lowest, but we're pretty damn close.

Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere, As Far As the Eye Can See

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 3:47 PM EST

One of the fundamental causes of the housing bubble of the aughts was a global glut of investment money with nowhere productive to go. So instead it went into housing, causing bubbles in the U.S. and several other countries. When the bubble burst, the economy tanked. And since the United States is so big, the Great Recession affected the whole world.

Here in America, we'd like to believe that we learned our lesson. And maybe we did. But there's still a global glut of investment money around, and there still aren't enough productive uses for it. So where's it going? Neil Irwin reports that Nouriel Roubini thinks it's still going into housing:

Roubini doesn't see bubbles in the places where they were most severe in the pre-2008 period. He doesn't mention the United States or Spain or Ireland. Rather, Roubini sees housing prices getting out of whack in quite a few small and mid-sized nations that are well-governed and managed to avoid the worst economic effects of the financial crisis: Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the London metropolitan area in the U.K.

....Roubini's argument boils down to this: The major economies have been growing only slowly. Yet with low interest rates and aggressive central bank action across the globe, there is a giant pool of money that has to go somewhere. That somewhere has not been productive new investments, like companies building new factories. Rather, it has come in the form of people taking advantage of cheap credit to bid up the price of existing real estate in cities from Stockholm to Sydney.

The key problem, as it's been for over a decade, is why investors can't find enough productive uses for their money. Weak economic growth due to rising income inequality is one possibility. Another is the rise of cheap entertainment—Facebook, Xbox, World of Warcraft—which portends lower demand for physical goods and services in the future. Or maybe it's because of steadily rising unemployment thanks to the growth of automation.

Whatever the reason, if this imbalance continues, it's hard to see things turning out well in the medium term. We need either less capital formation or more consumer demand—or both. The alternative is bubble after bubble. They may come in different places and different things, but what other alternative is there?

Chart of the Day: The Obamacare Website Has Been Working Pretty Well Since Early November

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 2:03 PM EST

Yesterday the Obama administration released a report showing that the healthcare.gov website is now working pretty well. Not perfectly. Not flawlessly. But pretty well. This confirms anecdotal reports that the site is now quite useable, and it's important because it's a proof of concept: if the site can go from disaster to workable in a couple of months, it means that its problems aren't so deeply structural that they're never going to be fixed. They were just bugs. And bugs get corrected.

But here's the thing that struck me when I looked at the HHS report last night: if their metrics are to be believed, they actually had the site working pretty well by early November. It's just that they didn't say much about it, instead waiting until their self-imposed December 1 deadline—due, I assume, to an abundance of caution after the horrible rollout. Still, take a look. The charts below are both big and barely legible (perhaps suggesting a whole different federal government IT problem) but what they consistently show is that the site was working tolerably well by November 9 and pretty acceptably well by November 16 (marked by the red bubbles). These metrics still don't show great performance—especially the 95 percent uptime metric, which really needs to be 99+ percent—but if you need to buy health coverage via healthcare.gov, you can do it. And that means that Obamacare is working too.

Tax-Free Internet Sales May Finally Be a Thing of the Past

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 1:26 PM EST

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on 60 Minutes last night that Amazon would someday make home deliveries via propeller-driven drones. Will this actually ever happen? I don't know, but I suspect that Bezos doesn't really care. Today, everyone is talking about Amazon drones, which means they're talking about Amazon. Mission accomplished.

However, it turns out that today brings much more important news for online retailers. Tacocopters may make for amusing conversation, but sales taxes mean a lot more for the bottom line:

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to get involved in state efforts to force online retailers such as Amazon.com to collect sales tax from customers even in places where the companies do not have a physical presence....All but five states impose sales taxes, and an increasing number have passed legislation to force online retailers such as Overstock and eBay to begin collecting those taxes from customers.

....As is its custom, the court gave no explanation for turning down petitions from Amazon and Overstock.com to review a decision by New York’s highest court to uphold that state’s 2008 law requiring sales tax collections.

Seattle-based Amazon has no offices, distribution centers or workforce in New York. But the New York Court of Appeals said Amazon’s relationship with third-party affiliates in the state that receive commissions for sending Web traffic its way satisfied the “substantial nexus” necessary to force the company to collect taxes.

Happy Cyber Monday! As it happens, Amazon pretty much caved in on this issue a year ago, but this is still an important non-ruling. It almost certainly means that every other state will fairly quickly follow the lead of California and New York, and it means that every other online retailer will have to start collecting state sales taxes too.

At a guess, this might also spur Congress to pass national legislation governing online sales taxes. Republicans have resisted this since it would effectively raise taxes on consumers, but if that's going to happen anyway then it might be worthwhile to at least harmonize the treatment of companies across all 50 states. It could even be a chance to put some modest limits on internet sales taxes, which might actually count as a tax reduction in Republican eyes. Who knows? But certainly national legislation has a slightly brighter outlook today than it did yesterday.

Brief Daily Tests Might Be a Godsend for Low-Income College Students

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 12:55 PM EST

Via Joanne Jacobs, here's an interesting research tidbit—highly preliminary and tentative, but still interesting. A couple of psychology professors at the University of Texas started giving students in their intro lecture course a brief online quiz in every single class session. They found that average grades went up modestly, both in their class and in other classes, though this was tricky to assess since previous classes had used different grading curves. However, the daily quizzes did unquestionably improve the relative performance of students from low-income homes:

There's really not enough data from this one study to figure out why the delta between high and low-SES groups compressed with daily testing, but the researchers' best guess is that the low-SES students benefited more from the daily, immediate feedback:

In our view, the patterns of improved performance across three outcomes (in Introductory Psychology, in other Fall classes, and in subsequent Spring classes) most plausibly reflect changes in students’ self-regulated learning — their ability to study and learn more effectively....In particular, students had to adopt reading, note-taking, and study habits that allowed them to keep up with the material. In talking with students, many noted how they had learned to set aside specific times to prepare for each class–something that they did not initially feel they needed to do for other classes. The repeated testing also broke the material into segments that required students to focus their attention on the relevant content and the immediate feedback after each quiz provided students with a constant and objective means with which to engage in productive self-evaluation. The daily quizzes also encouraged students to attend classes at higher rates.

In other words, the high-SES students had better average study habits to begin with, so the daily testing affected them only modestly. The low-SES students had poor study habits, and the daily testing made them face up to this early in their college careers and do something about it before it spiraled out of control. This affected not just their performance in the psychology class itself, but in the rest of their classes as well.

There are obviously a ton of confounding factors that could be at play here, but it's an interesting result, well worth following up on.

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Vladimir Putin and the Limits of Thuggishness

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 11:54 AM EST

A lot of American hawks have displayed a barely disguised admiration for Russia's Vladimir Putin this year. Oh, he's a thug and a bully all right, but at least he fights for his country's interests—and wins. The appeaser-in-chief could learn a thing or two from him.

Not so fast, says Dan Drezner. Exhibit A in Putin's 2013 display of statecraft was negotiating a deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and Exhibit B was his strong-arming of Ukraine to reject membership in the EU's Eastern Partnership and instead join Russia's planned Eurasian Union. Victory goes to the thuggish! Except, not so much:

It turns out that a lot of Ukrainians were not happy about this turn of events, and have engaged in eleven days of massive protests. Even Yanukovich's allies are now talking about reconciling with the domestic political opposition....[The New York Times reports that] "the anger over Russia’s role has made it all but impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to take the alternative offered by the Kremlin — joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan"....Furthermore, as the Economist points out, the way Russia has lost is even more damning. Rather than EU pressure, it is domestic discontent that has stayed Yanukovich's hand: "It is far better for the EU that the backlash against Mr Yanukovych comes from the streets of Kiev rather than from Brussels."

As for that Syrian chemical weapons deal, it turns out that (a) Obama and John Kerry had a lot more to do with that than we knew at first, and (b) regardless of the opposition of hardliners in Israel and Saudi Arabia, it's worked out pretty well for the United States. The truth is that Putin hasn't gotten a lot out of that deal, but we have.

Bottom line: Maximum belligerence isn't the answer to every foreign policy problem. Obama's approach might be messy, but over time it doesn't look so bad after all.

The Final Frontier: 500 Microseconds Between Wall Street and Chicago

| Sat Nov. 30, 2013 4:57 PM EST

A couple of months ago, there was a big scandal over the fact that someone apparently learned about a Fed decision sooner than they should have. It takes seven milliseconds for a signal to travel from Washington DC to Chicago over a fiber optic cable, but a couple of big orders were placed on the Chicago exchange a mere couple of milliseconds after the Fed announcement. Shazam!

But if an advantage of a few milliseconds is so important, why bother with fiber optic cables? Why not mount repeaters on blimps or something, and then relay wireless signals? At the speed of light, it would only take about four milliseconds from DC to Chicago.

I suppose I should have guessed, but naturally someone is doing this:

Ari Rubenstein, a "Star Trek" fan who counts physics as a hobby....heads Strike Technologies, a New York company that's part of a budding cottage industry racing to build networks of ultra-fast microwave radio transmitters linking the world's financial hubs.

....Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market's data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City.

Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company.

Remember that Keynes thing about goosing the economy by burying money in landfills and letting people dig it up? In terms of social utility, this strikes me as about the same thing. It's hard to imagine millions of dollars being spent more uselessly. Even gold-plated toilet seats probably have more value to society than this.

In any case, I still think my idea for a neutrino communications network that transmits directly through the earth is a better bet. Sure, you'd need a million gallons of chlorine or heavy water or something to act as the detector, but that seems pretty trivial in order to save another 500 microseconds. Who's going to be the first to do this?

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 3:26 PM EST

Today is a "Where's Waldo" edition of Friday catblogging, except that Domino is a lot easier to find than Waldo. Our quilt this week is another double Irish chain. Thanks to poor planning on my part, nearly all of our Irish chain quilts got backloaded into the end of the year, which is why you're seeing a bunch of them lately. And there's still one to go. This one is machine pieced and hand quilted.

In other news, I'm reliably told that whatever else you may think of it, the Daily Mail is your go-to destination for pictures of cute cats and other animals. Also, judging from its front page, it's the place to go for hyperbolic Black Friday News. Here is today's top headline in the US edition: "Black Friday chaos sweeps America: Man shot for a TV and another is stabbed for a parking space as shoppers turn violent." You may, if you wish, take this as a data point against my thesis that Black Friday is fading away.

Chicken vs. Turkey, Round 2

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 2:51 PM EST

In the great chicken vs. turkey debate, a friend writes in with further data to support turkey lovers:

Consider how we deal with other fowl.

Duck certainly has a lot more flavor than either chicken or turkey, but it is far less available, more perishable (hence sold frozen) and substantially more expensive (4-8x more expensive than chicken). Similarly, other domesticated or farmed fowl is both more expensive and less available, regardless of taste. An average goose is roughly the size of a medium turkey, but offers less meat and more bone per pound of live weight. But the ultimate determining factor is that it is simply more expensive.

Game birds, such as guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, quail, squab, cornish hens and a variety of ducks (as opposed to the standard Muscovite) are harder to raise, are inefficient meat sources and are supremely more expensive than both chicken and turkey, which is why we tend to save them for holidays and other special meals, if we eat them at all. No one in his right mind would argue that they are flavorless, and few would worry about their relative taste value compared to chicken, despite frequent personal dislikes of the particular flavors.

In other words, chicken isn't objectively tastier, it's just cheaper and easier to farm, in addition to being more convenient for consumers. So ignore the turkey haters and enjoy your leftovers today.