• The Noose Tightens Yet Again Around Chris Christie

    David Wildstein, the executive who was said to be Chris Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is deeply implicated in last year’s scheme to close the Fort Lee lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to conduct a “traffic study.” He has since resigned, and the Port Authority is refusing to pay his legal bills. Apparently this has pissed him off. Today he sent a letter asking them to change their mind, which included this lovely little nugget:

    Even if it’s only a threat, Wildstein can hardly refuse to provide this evidence now that he’s publicly said it exists. That just can’t be good news for Christie.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 31 January 2014

    It rained yesterday here in Southern California. I’d put the total damage at a hundredth of an inch, and wunderground.com says I have it about right. It was more like a heavy fog than real rain. But just like those Atlantans freaked out by two inches of snow, it was enough to send Domino scurrying for the warmth and protection of a blanket, which someone had considerately put right on top of her faux sheepskin pod. It turned out to be a great way to ride out the storm.

  • Chart of the Day: Everyone Agrees That Iraq Was a Disaster

    A new Pew poll shows that there’s no longer any difference between Democrats and Republicans on Iraq: huge majorities agree that the war was a failure.

    What’s interesting is the inflection point in 2008: Democrats became suddenly more optimistic about Iraq and Republicans became more pessimistic. This was before Barack Obama won the election, so it’s not directly because of that. But by mid-2008, negotiations over withdrawal had stalled and it was clear that the end of the US troop presence was near. It was also increasingly clear that Obama was likely to win the presidency. Those two things combined might account for the partisan differences.

    By 2012, with US troops gone, those partisan differences started to disappear. By 2014, they were gone. Hardly anyone could fool themselves into thinking that the Iraq War had succeeded in any way: there were no WMDs; there wasn’t much oil flowing; Iran’s influence had increased; and sectarian violence was once more on the rise. A third of the country can still be described as dead-enders on this score, but that’s it. Everyone else has finally faced the facts.

  • Quote of the Day: Why Immigration Reform Is Probably Going Nowhere

    In the Republican Party, immigration reform is basically a battle between the tea party, which opposes it, and the Chamber of Commerce wing, which supports it. In a nutshell, Dave Weigel explains why this means it’s doomed:

    The chamber wing does want immigration reform, badly, but not as intensely as it wants to defeat Democrats in 2014. So it’s easy for the party to fall into a holding pattern, with new rhetoric, without actually passing a bill.

    I guess anything is possible, and immigration reform has always been the one big legislative priority that I give a nonzero chance of passing Congress. But Weigel is right. The business wing of the GOP just doesn’t want it badly enough to risk starting a bloody, party-rupturing fight with the social conservatives. For once, I’d say that Ted Cruz probably has the right take on this.

  • If Bing Wants to Attract Power Users, It Needs an Advanced Search Page

    Matt Yglesias embarks on a short tour d’horizon of Microsoft’s future today and ends with Redmond’s white whale of a search engine:

    And then there’s Bing. I am obsessed with Bing. Not because I use Bing or because Bing is a commercially important product but because Bing is a socially important product. Steve Ballmer’s heroic determination to compete with Google on search has helped us resolve a lot of very thorny issues that would arise if Google Web Search became a monopoly product. But while we all (in some ways even including Google) owe Ballmer a debt of thanks for doing this, it’s far from clear that it’s been a smart business decision for Microsoft. All the “Scroogled” ads in the world aren’t going to turn this into a market-leading product, and Google at this point seems to be benefiting from both superior engineering and strong network effects. But what will we do if Bing goes away?

    I’ve used Bing. It works fine. In some ways it’s better than Google. In others it’s not. But there’s a very specific reason I’ve never switched: Bing has no advanced search page. Oh, you can do an advanced search if you care to remember the syntax for all the operators, but like millions of other people, I don’t care to do that. Google, conversely, makes it easy for me to do an advanced search. They also allow me to restrict a search to a date range, which is very, very handy.

    Now, it’s true that most people don’t ever do an advanced search of any kind. They just type a few words into the search box and press Enter, which is one of the reasons that 99 percent of the world is hopelessly incompetent at searching the internet. But serious users use it, and it’s serious users who can end up being evangelists for your products. So why not add an advanced search page? The cost is basically zero, so it’s not like there’s really any downside. What’s the holdup?

  • Here’s Yet Another Obamacare Non-Horror Story

    Here in California, we keep feeling the hammer blows of Obamacare. Thanks to the new law, our state’s largest individual health insurer is being forced to jack up insurance premiums for thousands of — oh wait. Let’s read the fine print here:

    Thousands of Anthem Blue Cross individual customers with older insurance policies untouched by Obamacare are getting some jarring news: Their premiums are going up as much as 25%….Anthem Blue Cross said its plan to raise rates reflects that escalating healthcare costs are an economic reality industrywide.

    The company said customers do have new options thanks to the healthcare law. “Many of the members affected here may be eligible for federal subsidies via the Covered California exchange and may have lower premiums if they decide to switch to an Affordable Care Act-compliant policy,” company spokesman Darrel Ng said.

    Roger that. Premiums are skyrocketing for policies that have nothing to do with Obamacare. What’s more, Anthem Blue Cross is recommending that affected customers might want to check out the Obamacare exchange to see if they can get a better deal there.

    This is yet another reason to be skeptical of claims that Obamacare is responsible for rate shock all over the country. It’s not a myth. It really has happened to some people. But the truth is that it affects only a small number of people; the horror story anecdotes routinely turn out to be either exaggerated or flatly false; and insurance companies have been jacking up rates for years anyway. They were going to do it in 2014 whether Obamacare existed or not.

  • Here’s a New Attempt to Fight the Scourge of Publication Bias

    Tyler Cowen points today to a wonky but interesting new paper about publication bias. This is a problem endemic to virtually all scientific research that’s based on statistical analysis. Basically, researchers only publish something if their results are positive and significant. If their results are in the very large “can’t really tell for sure if anything is happening” space, they shove the paper in a file drawer and it never sees the light of day.

    Here’s an example. Suppose several teams coincidentally decide to study the effect of carrots on baldness. Most of the teams find no effect and give up. But by chance, one team happens to find an effect. These statistical outliers happen occasionally, after all. So they publish. And since that’s the only study anyone ever sees, suddenly there’s a flurry of interest in using carrots to treat baldness.

    The authors of the new paper apply a statistical insight that corrects for this by creating something called a p-curve. Their idea is that if the true effect of something is X, and you do a bunch of studies, then statistical chance means that you’ll get a range of results arrayed along a curve and centering on X. However, if you look at the published literature, you’ll never see the full curve. You’ll see only a subset of the curve that contains the results that were positive and significant.

    But this is enough: “Because the shape of p-curve is a function exclusively of sample size and effect size, and sample size is observed, we simply find the free parameter that obtains the best overall fit.” What this means is that because p-curves have a known shape, just looking at the small section of the p-curve that’s visible allows you to estimate the size of the full curve. And this in turn allows you to estimate the true effect size just as if you had read all the studies, not just the ones that got published.

    So how good is this? “As one may expect,” say the authors, “p-curve is more precise when it is based on studies with more observations and when it is based on more studies.” So if there’s only one study, it doesn’t do you much good. Left unsaid is that this technique also depends on whether nonsignificant results are routinely refused publication. One of the examples they use is the question of whether raising the minimum wage increases unemployment, and they conclude that after you correct for publication bias the literature finds no effect at all (red bar). But as Cowen points out, “I am not sure the minimum wage is the best example here, since a ‘no result’ paper on that question seems to me entirely publishable these days and indeed for some while.” In other words, if a paper that finds no effect is as publishable as one that does, there might be no publication bias to correct.

    Still, the whole thing is interesting. The bottom line is that in many cases, it’s fairly safe to assume that nonsignificant results aren’t being published, and that in turn means that you can extrapolate the p-curve to estimate the actual average of all the studies that have been conducted. And when you do, the average effect size almost always goes down. It’s yet another reason to be cautious about accepting statistical results until they’ve been widely replicated. For even more reasons to be skeptical, see here.

  • There’s Not Much Point in Pretending to Care About the New Republican Health Care Plan

    I have been derelict in my duty. A team of Republicans introduced a genuine alternative to Obamacare earlier this week, and I haven’t blogged about it. I’ll be honest: I just couldn’t work up the energy for several reasons.

    • Even on fleeting inspection, it’s obviously a feeble plan. It would cover very few people; most of the people it does cover couldn’t come close to affording it; and its policies would offer benefits so meager as to be almost useless.
    • The small amount of good it does is funded by reducing the tax deduction for employer health care. This is a joke. It would meet with massive resistance from virtually every Republican constituency. In particular, Grover Norquist would score it as a tax hike (which it is) and that means it would be DOA in the Republican caucus.
    • Even without the tax hike, this bill is going nowhere. I’ll give props to Tom Coburn and his friends for at least taking a semi-serious shot at health care reform, but no one seriously thinks it would have any chance of garnering even majority Republican support, let alone passing Congress.

    As Dylan Scott reports, the sponsors of this bill have already watered down the tax hike. It barely took them a day. The new wording is a little vague, but it most likely eliminates the new funding entirely. And without funding, the bill is even more of a joke than it was to begin with.

    It’s really kind of pointless to pretend that this is a real plan with real prospects of getting Republican support, but if you want to read all the details of the plan anyway, Jonathan Cohn has you covered here. As always, Cohn is very gentlemanly about the whole thing, but his bottom line is accurate: “The authors of the Patient CARE Act and many of their allies are acting as if conservatives have some magic elixir for health care problems—a way to provide the same kind of security that the Affordable Care Act will, but with a lot less interference in the market and a lot less taxpayer money. It’s all the goodies of liberal health care reform, they imply, but without the unpleasant parts. They’re wrong.”

  • Uncle Sam’s Retirement Largesse Goes Mostly to the Affluent

    On Tuesday, President Obama proposed a “starter” retirement account for folks who don’t have IRAs or 401(k)s. Like a lot of people, I was pretty unimpressed. Today, Matt Bruenig reminds us of another reason to be unimpressed: we already spend a helluva lot of money on tax-favored retirement accounts, and nearly all of the benefit goes to the well off:

    The richest fifth pulled down 66 percent of them, while the poorest fifth pulled down just 2 percent of them….Needless to say, this system of retirement tax subsidies is totally ridiculous and is just another of the submerged ways that we funnel huge sums of money to the rich in this country. If we really want to pump up the retirement savings of the poor, one obvious way to start is to take the next decade’s $1.4 trillion of retirement tax expenditures and distribute them in a different way than the manner detailed in the graph above.

    And what might that “different way” be? Unlike Atrios, I’m not yet convinced that it’s fair to describe the 401(k) system as a “failure which offers some nice tax breaks to relatively wealthy people and hasn’t led to sufficient retirement savings for everybody else.” The thing is, the old-school pension system that we all profess to miss so much also benefited primarily the well off and also provided insufficient retirement savings for everyone else. And it was doomed anyway, thanks to increasing investment risk in the post-Bretton Woods era and lack of portability between jobs in an era when fewer and fewer people work for the same company their entire careers.

    What’s more, I honestly don’t know if the current system is better or worse. I would love, love, love for someone to produce a reliable distributional estimate of defined-benefit pensions circa 1975 to defined-contribution pensions circa today.1 This would give us an idea of how much things have changed and who’s benefited the most from these changes. Unfortunately, no one seems to have done this. Maybe the data just isn’t there and it can’t be done. I don’t know. But at this point it’s all but impossible to say that our current DC pension system is really any worse than the old DB pension system.

    That said, one thing is pretty easy to agree on: our pension system is, and always has been, miserly toward the poor. That’s true of Social Security; it’s true of old-school pensions; and it’s true of 401(k)s. If we want to reform our pension system, we should reform Social Security in a way that increases benefits for the folks at the bottom of the scale who are trying to scrounge a living on $1,100 a month. That probably means cutting benefit growth for those above the median, and it also means phasing in higher Social Security revenues over the next two or three decades. Unfortunately, although that would be the decent thing to do, it might mean that America’s best off have to pay slightly more in taxes by the time 2030 rolls around. And we can’t have that, can we?

    LINGO DIGRESSION: “Defined benefit” refers to an old-school pension. Those are the ones where your monthly retirement benefit was guaranteed regardless of how much you contributed to it. “Defined contribution” is what most of us have now. We make specific contributions to personal accounts, and the payout during retirement depends on how well our investments do.

  • Why the Rich Feel Besieged: A Checklist

    What is it that has the Davos set so freaked out these days? I’m not talking about Wall Street Journal editorials decrying the evils of class warfare. That’s pro forma stuff, not to be taken seriously. I’m talking about the fact that an awful lot of people claim that rich people are really and truly feeling besieged. It’s not an act and it’s not just paranoia—they’re even seeking therapy to deal with it. As Ben White puts it today, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national — and even global — mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.”

    But why? The rich have done pretty well lately—certainly a helluva lot better than the working class. So what’s the problem? Do they genuinely believe that their wealth might be confiscated in the near future? That’s hard to credit. Eliminating the carried interest loophole or increasing top marginal rates by a few points just doesn’t have that big an effect, and even the most paranoid rich folks can’t believe there’s much more than that on the horizon. So what is it? I don’t know, but I want to toss out a few bullet points just to stir up discussion:

    1. Over the past few decades, the rich have been accustomed to being lionized: splashed on the covers of magazines as the movers and shakers of the economy and feted in ballrooms for their philanthropy. That’s largely a thing of the past. You don’t have to feel sorry for them to understand that once you get used to something like that, it’s unnerving when it goes away.
    2. Even worse, the rich have come in for a lot of abuse since the financial crash. Fairly or not, they feel increasingly socially ostracized, and few things promote a feeling of indignation and persecution more than that.
    3. Most of them have a feeling that they personally have done nothing wrong. Even within the financial industry, 98 percent of the players can argue that the bad actors were limited to the mortgage side and the derivatives brokers. The rest of them have clean hands. They were just playing by the rules, and they happen to have gotten rich fair and square.1
    4. They have a belief that the protestors against the 1 percent are mostly just unreconstructed lefties who want to demonize the business class and shake them down for a handout. It’s the Sixties all over again.
    5. They’ve been made to feel guilty for their success. Hell, even the pope is lecturing them. Again, fairly or not, nobody likes feeling guilty. It almost universally provokes defensiveness and defiance against the guilt-mongers.
    6. Some of them have a genuine belief that the government is trying to intimidate them from speaking out. This is what’s behind their mania for keeping political contributions secret.

    I’d emphasize #3 as an underdiscussed factor. It’s not hard to understand, either. I’m not part of the 1 percent, but I’m probably part of the 5 percent, and I’d feel pretty put upon if I spent several years hearing about how terrible I am. After all, I didn’t personally do anything wrong. I just had a lucky life that’s allowed me to live comfortably. What’s wrong with that?

    Multiply that by a thousand and this is how a big chunk of the plutocrat set feels these days.

    1Yes, this ignores their role in setting those rules in the first place. But most of them never really think about that.

  • Chart of the Day: An Awful Lot of People Think Obamacare is Hurting Them

    Kaiser has released its monthly tracking poll on Obamacare, and there’s really no way to put lip gloss on this pig. Public perception of the law has been worsening for the past nine months, and it gapped out sharply after the rollout debacle in October. There’s now a 16-point delta between unfavorable and favorable views of the law, 50-34 percent. With the exception of one or two monthly anomalies that are probably polling artifacts, this is by far the worst it’s been since the law was passed.

    You can see the effect this has in the chart on the right: 27 percent now say that Obamacare has “negatively affected” someone in their family. That’s crazy. Even if you subtract the baseline of 18-19 percent who have been saying this all along, that’s an increase of nearly ten points over the course of 2013. Unless you take an absurdly expansive view of “affected,” this is all but impossible. Obamacare simply doesn’t have that kind of reach.

    But we’ve been though a recent period in which every co-pay increase, every premium increase, and every narrowing of benefits has been blamed on Obamacare. These things have happened every year like clockwork for the past couple of decades, but this year it was convenient to blame them on Obamacare. Combine that with the PR disaster from the website rollout, and a whole lot of people now believe that Obamacare is hurting them.

    Unfortunately, this is fertile ground for Republicans. If they really have the discipline to avoid shooting themselves in the foot this year over idiotic confrontations with the president, running their midterm campaign solely on opposition to Obamacare might be a winner.

  • Economy Grows Fairly Decently in Q4

    Economic growth slowed down a bit in Q4, but remained fairly healthy. The BEA announced today that real GDP increased 3.2 percent last quarter, due almost entirely to private sector growth. Slowdowns in federal spending actually cut GDP growth by 0.98 percent—about two-thirds due to cuts in defense spending and one-third due to cuts in domestic spending. This is the price of austerity: if federal spending were growing at a normal rate at this point in a recovery, GDP growth last quarter probably would have stood at around 4.5 percent or so.

    Everything else was pretty positive:

    The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending that were partly offset by negative contributions from federal government spending and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

    Consumer spending increased decently, and inflation was extremely subdued at 1.2 percent. All in all, a decent report, if not a spectacular one. Now we all get to wait and see if it’s good enough to offset all the turmoil in emerging markets that’s got everyone so jittery.

  • No Smoking Guns Yet, But the Noose Is Tightening Around Chris Christie

    The New York Times is pretty clearly expending a lot of resources on the various Chris Christie scandals. So far they haven’t produced any smoking guns, but they’re sure digging up some stuff that doesn’t look good for Team Christie. First up is a look at the Christie political team, which was apparently obsessed with winning votes in Democratic-leaning towns. This wasn’t because the votes themselves were all that critical to Christie’s 2012 reelection campaign, but because winning in these places “would validate the governor’s argument that he would be the most broadly appealing Republican choice for president in 2016”:

    Staff members in the governor’s office created tabbed and color-coded dossiers on the mayors of each town — who their friends and enemies were, the policies and projects that were dear to them — that were bound in notebooks for the governor to review in his S.U.V. between events.

    ….Officially known as “intergovernmental affairs,” the operation was a key element of the permanent campaign that allowed Mr. Christie to win twice in a largely Democratic state. It was led by Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, and then by Bridget Anne Kelly, who succeeded him in his role in the governor’s office.

    ….By many accounts, the person in the front office who handled most of the politics was Mr. Stepien…..He mapped out the list of mini-Ohios and mini-Floridas where Mr. Christie might win what they called “persuadable voters.”….Those 100 or so towns would receive special attention — state aid, help from the Port Authority, a town-hall-style session with Mr. Christie — in hopes that by the time the governor ran for a second term, he would have friends there; even if local officials did not endorse him, they would not be working for his Democratic opponent.

    The point of this piece is to demonstrate three things. First, winning votes in cities like Fort Lee really was important to the Christie team. Second, they were pretty ruthless about going after those votes. Third, Christie himself met regularly with his team to discuss their tactics in minute detail. The strong inference is that (a) Shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to intimidate a mayor who wasn’t playing ball was right up their alley, and (b) if they did this, Christie almost certainly knew about it.

    The story doesn’t contain even a speck of proof that Christie had anything to do with the bridge closure. But it sure paints a suggestive picture. There’s obviously more to come on this.

    The second piece ran on Wednesday, and it’s about Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claim that the Christie administration held up flood aid from Hurricane Sandy unless she approved a redevelopment project supported by Christie. However, Wednesday’s story starts with an anecdote about a more recent flooding:

    [Zimmer] dashed off a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, imploring him to help with Hoboken’s “ongoing flooding emergency,” and attached photos of cars in water up to their hoods. She was due to meet the next day with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, when she hoped to talk about protecting Hoboken from the next catastrophic deluge to come.

    But according to newly obtained emails sent among the participants, the first topic of discussion on the agenda was “review of concepts for flood control measures at Rockefeller property,” a reference to a billion-dollar office complex proposed at the north end of town. The developer, the Rockefeller Group, which had long been trying to gain approval from local officials, sent two executives, two lobbyists and an engineer to the meeting.

    A few days after this meeting, Zimmer had her famous chat in the parking lot of a Shop-Rite supermarket with lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. Zimmer alleges that Guadagno told her she needed to “move forward” with the Rockefeller project if she wanted Hoboken to receive any further hurricane aid.

    Again, there’s no smoking gun here, just a detailed look at the lobbying behind the Hoboken project and how much pressure Christie and his allies brought to bear on it. It doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly makes Zimmer’s allegations more plausible. And this stuff is already hurting Christie badly. A new ABC News poll shows that Christie has “gone from a 32-point net positive rating last summer to a 5-point net negative now — never a comfortable place for a public figure.”

    It’s pretty obvious that stories like these are going to keep dripping out. The Times has several reporters assigned to bird dog this story, and once the New Jersey legislature starts subpoenaing people, there’s going to be continuing grist for an endless succession of lurid headlines. By themselves, neither of these stories moves the bar much. But as a harbinger of things to come, they’re pretty ominous for Christie. Buckle up.

  • Washington Free Beacon Publishes Dumbest Gotcha Story Ever

    The Washington Free Beacon is dedicated to “uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day.” Today, one of those blockbuster stories is about Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, who told one TV station that he thought President Obama did a great job last night while telling another that he was disappointed. What a flip-flopper!

    Except, as Dave Weigel tells us, one of the TV clips—very deliberately edited to make its origin unclear—is from last year’s SOTU. Pryor was happy with that one, but not so happy with Obama’s 2014 speech.

    What a bunch of clowns. Hell, it wouldn’t even have been a very good gotcha story if it were true.

  • Thomas Piketty Has a Grim View of Our Plutocratic Future

    A while back I mentioned Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, which hasn’t yet made a big splash in the United States because the English translation won’t be out until March. But Thomas Edsall takes a look at reaction so far to Piketty’s thesis about the roots of rising income inequality and summarizes it this way:

    Piketty proposes [] that the rise in inequality reflects markets working precisely as they should: “This has nothing to do with a market imperfection: the more perfect the capital market, the higher” the rate of return on capital is in comparison to the rate of growth of the economy. The higher this ratio is, the greater inequality is.

    ….There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations — starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s — was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.

    The chart on the right shows this graphically. For most of history, returns to capital were higher than the growth rate of the global economy, and this meant higher returns to owners of capital than to workers at large. And this means rising inequality. As a reviewer writes, “if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years.” The mid-20th century reversal of this trend was temporary and unlikely to be repeated.

    One thing to be clear about, however, is that the right side of Piketty’s chart is a forecast. I’ve redrawn it with dashed red lines to make that clear. Piketty is predicting that returns to capital will exceed growth modestly over the next half century, and will gap out wildly in the half century after that. Edsall doesn’t really explain why Piketty believes this, so I guess we’ll have to wait for further reviews on that score. Speaking for myself, I’ll need some convincing. My view is that the second half of the 21st century—assuming we manage not to blow each other up or fry the planet to a cinder—is likely to be an era of fantastically high growth thanks to robotics and artificial intelligence. That also produces problems related to the distribution of income, but they’re rather different from Piketty’s.

    But in one sense it doesn’t matter. Piketty’s solution to the problem of this mismatch between growth and capital returns—which he considers an inevitable consequence of capitalism—is redistribution and plenty of it: “The only way to halt this process, he argues, is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth….an annual graduated tax on stocks and bonds, property and other assets that are customarily not taxed until they are sold.” That’s probably the eventual answer to the robotics revolution too. So regardless of which fork we take in the future, higher taxes on the rich seem pretty likely.

  • Milk Doesn’t Do a Body So Good After All

    When I was a teenager, I drank a lot of milk. That made my bones strong, which is why I’ve been able to avoid fracturing my hip now that I’m over 50. Hooray for milk!

    Except wait. Science™ has intruded on this idyllic marketing fantasy:

    Researchers followed people for 22 years to see if drinking milk as a teenager affected the rate of hip fractures during the study period. What did they find? There were more than 1200 hip fractures in women and almost 500 hip fractures in men in the follow-up period. But it turns out that each additional glass of milk per day as teenagers was associated with a 9% HIGHER risk of hip fractures in men later in life. Drinking more milk had no effect in women.

    In other words, regardless of what the ads say, as a teen there’s no protective effect of your “bones getting stronger” in terms of preventing hip fractures later in life by drinking milk. In fact, the evidence shows that it may make it more likely that males will develop hip fractures.

    That’s a helluva thing, isn’t it? That Aaron Carroll is a real killjoy.

  • Obama Did Not Throw Down the Gauntlet to Republicans Last Night

    The most common interpretation of last night’s State of the Union address is that it was a forceful declaration that if Congress won’t act on the important issues facing America, then by God, President Obama will act on his own. Here are some typical headlines:

    New York Times: Obama Vows to Act Alone on the Economy

    Washington Post: President vows to use his authority with new force

    Wall Street Journal: Obama Seeks to Jump-Start Stalled Plans

    It’s easy to understand how this happened. The White House apparently spent all day yesterday telling everyone that this was the president’s message, so reporters all wrote their stories in that light. And Republicans went along because the tryant Obama and his mania for Constitution-crushing executive orders is a good fundraising schtick for them. But ifyou actually listen to the speech, there’s much less of this than meets the eye. In particular, on a purely substantive level there was hardly anything. As illustration, here is Brad Plumer’s exhaustive list of seven things Obama said he’d do on his own:

    1. Boost the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour
    2. Create a basic new type of retirement savings account.
    3. Urge chief executives to end the discrimination against the long-term unemployed.
    4. Ratchet up fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
    5. Review federal job-training programs.
    6. Create four new manufacturing hubs.
    7. Set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

    This list is a huge stretch. Of these things, 3 and 5 aren’t even executive orders to begin with. That leaves five items. Of those, 4, 6, and 7 are just continuations of existing programs.

    So that leaves 1 and 2. Basically, in the entire speech, Obama announced that he would do two new things unilaterally: raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and create a new kind of savings bond. To call these small bore is to insult .22 caliber rifles. Micro bore is more like it, and every president has at least a few items like this in the SOTU every year.

    If you listen to the actual speech Obama gave, rather than the spin the White House put on it, it really wasn’t an in-your-face challenge to Congress. There were a couple of routine shoutouts to gridlock and how the American people expect more from their public servants, and there were several places where Obama asked Congress to join him in addressing public policy problems. But honestly, that’s pretty garden variety stuff. It happens in every SOTU.

    This wasn’t a declaration of independence. Obama knows perfectly well that there isn’t much he can do without Congress’s help, and for the most part he avoided confrontational language. In fact, I’d say he was more conciliatory than usual—and also, as I said last night, more relaxed and good-natured than usual. Read the speech through fresh eyes and I think you’ll see what I mean.

  • SOTU 2014: Relaxed, Good-Natured, and Pretty Effective

    Charles Dharapak/ZUMA

    This year I tried something new for the State of the Union address. No liveblogging, no tweeting, no notes, no nothing. I just watched it, like a normal human being.

    Did it work? Do I feel like I responded differently to it this way? Maybe. But probably not. I’ve long since been sucked into inhuman analytic mode when I watch these things, and there’s nothing to be done about it now.

    So: first impressions first. I’m having a hard time describing the overall sensation I got from this speech. But it was a positive one. Yes, it was mostly fairly small bore, but the domestic section of the speech felt to me like it held together better than usual. Obama announced at the start that he was going to focus on growing the economy and expanding opportunity, and everything he said really did fit that theme. This gave it a bit less of a laundry-list feel than usual. What’s more, it felt a little more relaxed than past SOTUs. Obama lobbed some challenges toward Republicans, but they were fewer than usual, and for the most part they felt a little more good-natured than in the past.

    Before the speech, the big buzz was about how Obama was going to focus on executive powers. If Congress wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he’d do it himself with the stroke of a presidential pen. And thanks to that buzz, this is something that every talking head was emphasizing in the postgame wrap-ups. But in reality, there was very little of that in the speech itself. Obama repeatedly used phrases like “if Congress wants to help me, they can _____” but very few of them sounded to me like ultimatums. They sounded like pretty sincere desires to work with Congress, and I’m pretty sure that’s how they came across to viewers who listened to the speech without benefit of all the prespeech framing. If there was an iron fist of executive orders behind this, it was mostly wrapped in a velvet glove.

    Obama’s defense of the Affordable Care Act was excellent. And while I usually hate the ordinary citizens who are invited to be props for the SOTU, someone deserves a raise for finding Amanda Shelley and inviting her. Here’s Obama:

    A preexisting condition used to mean that someone like Amanda Shelley, a physician assistant and single mom from Arizona, couldn’t get health insurance. But on January 1st, she got covered. On January 3rd, she felt a sharp pain. On January 6th, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy.

    That’s what health insurance reform is all about—the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything.

    It doesn’t get any better than that. Shelley was a perfect example of what Obamacare is all about.

    On the fact-check front, the only thing that jumped out at me was Obama’s reference to women making 77 cents for every dollar that men make. It’s not precisely wrong, but it will certainly open him up to nitpicking about whether it’s fair to use that number. For the record, I think it is fair, though I’ll grant that a little bit of explanation is called for.

    The most amusing part of the evening was watching Obama goad John Boehner into clapping for things he didn’t want to clap for. When Obama said, “No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” Boehner could hardly not clap, even though he knew what was coming next: a proposal to raise the minimum wage that he opposes. Ditto for “Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote” and several others.

    Needless to say, we didn’t learn much new on the policy front tonight—though I don’t think anyone expected to. However, one thing in particular stuck out: the surprisingly short shrift Obama gave to immigration reform. It got a grand total of 121 pro forma words in the middle of the speech, and that was it. Was this because he considers it a hopeless cause, or because he didn’t want to politicize it further by dwelling on it? I’m not sure.

    Overall, I give Obama pretty good marks. This wasn’t a lofty speech, but that’s not what the current environment calls for. Instead, it was small bore. It was relaxed. It was good-natured. And it stuck to a single theme pretty effectively. Given where we are right now, those were good choices to make.

  • Quote of the Day: Voters Hate Their Bosses

    From Maggie Gallagher, chastising her fellow conservatives in advance for their almost-sure-to-be-lame responses to tonight’s State of the Union address:

    We say “job creator,” voters hear “my boss.” And voters hate their bosses.

    Here’s the full quote:

    Most Americans have jobs. Yes they are concerned about unemployment: but they at least as concerned and affected by stagnant wages and declining standards of living that along with rising prices are cutting American middle-class voters’ standard of living. High medical costs and tuition rates are eating away at Americans’ standard of living.

    Boehner’s guests tonight include not fewer than five company presidents complaining about Obamacare. Memo to GOP: The job-creators meme is a loser. We say “job creator,” voters hear “my boss.” And voters hate their bosses.

    We can’t be the party of people’s bosses and win elections.

    Hard to argue with that. The question is, can Democrats take advantage of this? Recent history gives cause for doubt.

  • Liberals Finally Cleared of Anti-Vaccine Madness

    Are liberals just as prone to deny science as conservatives? The main exhibits against conservatives are evolution and climate change. The main exhibits against liberals are vaccines and GMO foods. But via Paul Waldman, we finally have some fairly strong evidence about the ideological leanings of people who believe vaccines are linked to autism:

    Yes, there may be a parent at your kid’s organic vegan locally sourced small-batch co-op nursery school who thinks it’s true, and dangerous lunatic Jenny McCarthy, the nation’s most prominent propagator of this theory, is a Hollywood celebrity and many Hollywood celebrities are liberals, but that doesn’t mean that liberals in general are more likely to believe in the fictional vaccine-autism link.

    So here is some empirical data, from Dan Kahan of Yale Law School and the Cultural Cognition Project. Kahan did a study that included a survey and some experiments testing both what people believe about the topic and how they react to different kinds of information about it. And it turns out that not only do very few people believe that childhood vaccines pose a danger, liberals are no more likely to believe that than conservatives; in fact, they’re slightly less likely to believe it. Here’s the key graph, which shows how much risk people of different ideologies associate with a variety of things like legalizing marijuana, gun ownership, and global warming. The black line is vaccines.

    I guess we can now check that one off the list. That pretty much leaves anti-GMO sentiment on the bill of particulars against liberals and science, and I will leave you all to fight that one out in comments. I can’t really take a strong side on this since I have mixed feelings.