Kevin Drum - February 2014

Bring On the Designer Babies

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 11:06 AM EST

The FDA is discussing whether it should allow scientists to perform in-vitro fertilization with genetic material from three parents:

The two-day meeting of the Food and Drug Administration panel is focused on a procedure that scientists think could help women who carry DNA mutations for conditions such as blindness and epilepsy. The process would let them have children without passing on those defects.

....The FDA’s announcement several months ago that it would hold a public hearing on the subject elicited an outcry from scientists, ethicists and religious groups, who say the technology raises grave safety concerns and could open the door to creating “designer” babies, whose eye color, intelligence and other characteristics are selected by parents.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society and a vocal critic of the procedure, said human trials would mark the first time the FDA had approved a gene-modification technique whose effect is transmitted to a person’s descendants. “What we’re talking about is radical experimentation on future children.... A decision of such profound magnitude should not be made behind the mostly closed doors of this agency,” Darnovsky told the committee Tuesday.

It's about time we faced up to this, I think. As the technology for this steadily advances, and designer babies become possible, parents are going to get designer babies. If the United States bans it, they'll go to Switzerland. If Switzerland bans it, they'll go to China. If China bans it, they'll go underground. But one way or another, if this technology exists, the demand for it is going to be irresistible.

As a good liberal, my concern is largely that this gives rich families yet another leg up in the great lottery of life. Conservatives seems to be more concerned that we're flouting the will of God or something. And I guess everyone is concerned about the safety of the procedure and where it ultimately leads. Eyes in the back of the head? Gills in addition to lungs? Custom-designed arm muscles that allow your kid to put Sandy Koufax to shame?

None of that really scares me, so I'm basically OK with all this as long as it's done slowly and methodically. But I don't think it much matters if I'm OK with it. If it can be done, there is simply nothing that will stop parents from getting it. That's a movie trope Hollywood gets right. We should be discussing how to reasonably regulate this kind of thing, not whether to allow it at all.

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CDC Reports Bafflingly Huge Obesity Decline Among 2-5 Year-Olds

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 1:49 AM EST

This is pretty amazing:

New federal data published Tuesday show a 43 percent drop in obesity rates among children ages 2 to 5 during the past decade, providing another encouraging sign in the fight against one of the country’s leading public health problems, officials said.

....Researchers say that they don’t know the precise reasons behind the drop in obesity rates for children 2 to 5. But they noted that many child-care centers have started to improve nutrition and physical activity standards over the past few years. Ogden said that CDC data also show decreases in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among youth in recent years. Another possible factor might be improvement in breastfeeding rates in the United States, which helps fight obesity in breastfed children.

In fact, these results are so amazing that they're hard to believe. This is a truly massive drop in a single decade for anything, let alone something as generally intractable as obesity. And it's especially hard to believe because of this:

Overall, there was no significant change [in high weight] among infants and toddlers, obesity in 2- to 19-year-olds, or obesity in adults....There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children.

That's from the abstract of the study. I don't have access to the full article in JAMA, but if I'm reading the abstract right, it means there was no change in obesity for infants age 0-2, no change for children age 6-19, and no change among adults. There was only a change in children age 2-5, and it was a huge one.

That's just....inexplicable. In the past, about 8 percent of infants were overweight, and that increased to 14 percent among 2-5 year-olds. Now, there's no obesity gain at all during those years. It's 8 percent among infants and 8 percent among 2-5 year-olds. But obesity rates still increase to about 18 percent among older children. Whatever's causing this drop in obesity rates is apparently affecting only 2-5 year-olds, but having no longer-term effect. It's a stumper.

The Fed Cares About Inflation 10 Times More Than It Cares About Unemployment

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 5:00 PM EST

Ryan Avent, having exhausted his conventional analysis of the Fed's 2008 transcripts, turns today to a more analytical approach: counting words. I think others have already made this point without numbers, but Avent's most powerful finding is that the Fed cares way more about inflation than it does about unemployment:

There is only one winner in the dual mandate. The word “inflation” (or variants thereof, such as “inflationary”) was mentioned a cool 2,664 times in 2008; “unemployment” pops up just 275 times.

I'm assuming he played fair and also looked for variants of "unemployment," like "employment" or "jobs." In any case, I don't think this comes as much of a surprise to anyone, since it's been obvious for decades that the Fed not only doesn't care about unemployment, but gets positively worried when too many people have jobs. That would mean the labor market is tight and workers might get paid more, you see, and that could be inflationary. Still, it's nice to see this verified quantitatively.

Avent also found that there were fewer mentions of "recession" as the year went on, which seems odd but might not be. Early on, when it was still unclear if the economy was in recession, I suppose they argued about this a lot. By June, when there was no longer any question about it, they all took it for granted and no longer even needed to mention it.

As for the finding that laughter increased later in the year, I guess I can't blame them. There's only so much globe-destroying financial panic you can take without cracking a few jokes.

Chart of the Day: Driverless Cars Are Coming!

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 3:00 PM EST

I consider myself a pretty reckless optimist when it comes to the general topic of artificial intelligence and the specific topic of driverless cars. In particular, I figure that true driverless cars will be here within a decade or so. But apparently I'm not being aggressive at all. In fact, I'm just an old fogey. Via Matt Yglesias, here's a projection from a recent Morgan Stanley research report:

Damn! "Limited" driver substitution by next year. And full-on driverless cars within four or five years. I sure hope the researcher who wrote this knows something I don't. If this is all really in the works, it's pretty awesome.

President Obama Is Fighting Cuts to the Military, Not Demanding Them

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 12:54 PM EST

From Dick Cheney, commenting on President Obama's proposed military budget, presented yesterday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel:

I think the whole thing is not driven by any change in world circumstances, it is driven by budget considerations. He would much rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops.

This is, as Andrew Sullivan points out, loathsome:

He could have made an argument why he thinks we should maintain the stratospheric levels of defense spending that have been in place since 9/11; he could have argued that the US needs to maintain the ability to fight two major land wars simultaneously in perpetuity. He could have said a lot of things. But he decided to accuse the commander-in-chief of not supporting the troops and actually wanting to keep people in poverty. There is this belief out there that Republican extremism comes from the base and not the elites. But Cheney proves otherwise.

There's more to this. You might disagree with Obama's priorities, but Cheney's claim is based entirely on the notion that Hagel and Obama are proposing military cuts. But they aren't. Hagel proposed a change in force structure that would lead to a smaller Army, but his overall budget proposal is $115 billion more than the current sequester levels demanded by Republicans. Hagel is going to have plenty of fights on his hands, but mainly because he wants more money, not less. James Joyner explains:

Hagel, in a Pentagon speech on Monday, insisted that sequestration levels amounted to “irresponsible cuts” that would “compromise our national security for both the short- and long-term.” While acknowledging that they remain “the law of the land,” the secretary insisted that the only way to implement them “is to sharply reduce spending on readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force—one that isn’t ready or capable of fulfilling assigned positions.” Hagel terms the administration proposal as “more reasonable and far more responsible” than the current approach.

....Further, the $115 billion figure actually understates the amount by which the proposal exceeds sequestration limits....another Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, round in 2017....proposed cut of 20,000 personnel from the Army National Guard by 2019....cancel the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program, end future upgrades to F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter and EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft, and halt the buy of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship....mothball its entire fleet of A-10 close air support planes....capping pay raises for troops at 1 percent (while freezing pay for general officers).

....At the same time, slashing the Army to its smallest size since before World War II, which essentially guarantees that the United States could not take on two simultaneous major conflicts, is likely to be accomplished without much resistance.

In other words, Hagel is going to run into a buzzsaw because (a) he wants a bigger budget and (b) he wants to cut a bunch of wasteful spending that's near and dear to every congressman whose district might be affected. Cutting the size of the Army is just one small part of the whole package.

Naturally this is the part that Fox News focuses on and that Dick Cheney demagogues. But keep one thing firmly in mind: Even though it's declined from its Iraq/Afghanistan peak, our military budget is still far larger than it was in 2000. Congress has made it clear that it wants further cuts, and in this case at least, Obama and Hagel are the ones fighting against the cuts. In his current proposal, Obama is asking for more money than current sequestration levels. He's not cutting the military. Compared to what Congress asked for, he's expanding it.

Bitcoin Is a Fiat Currency, But That's Not Its Big Problem

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 11:54 AM EST

Mt. Gox, the biggest name in Bitcoin exchanges, has apparently suffered a huge, ongoing theft amounting to several hundred million dollars. Today, their website is shut down. All is chaos, and science fiction author Charles Stross doesn't have much sympathy:

C'mon, folks. Mt. Gox was a trading card swap mart set up by an amateur coder and implemented in PHP!....I've written software that handled financial transactions for a dot-com startup—a payment service provider, now a subsidiary of Mastercard. Been there, got the scars.

....You can't do this shit on an amateur basis and not get burned....Datacash grew from a tiny seed (about 30 credit card transactions in our first three months) to something that was handling around 20,000 transactions per server per day when I left in early 2000, following 30% compound growth per month for an extended period; the early codebase was retired as rapidly as was feasible, the company had penetration testers, an in-house crypto specialist, and coding standards with test harnesses and QA well before it was handling 10% of MtGox's turnover ... and still shit happened. From what I've read, I'm not convinced that MtGox ever understood what financial security entails. But the fault isn't theirs alone. The real fault lies with Bitcoin itself.

A real currency with a fiscal policy and the backing of a state that could raise loans would be able to ride out this insult. It'd be extraordinarily painful, but it wouldn't devastate the currency in perpetuity. But Bitcoin doesn't have a fiscal policy: it wears a gimp suit and a ball gag, padlocked into permanent deflation and with the rate of issue of new "notes" governed by the law of algorithmic complexity.

Personally, I consider Bitcoin useful in one narrow way: it forces people to think about what a fiat currency really is. Bitcoin, after all, is the ultimate fiat currency: just a bunch of ones and zeroes on a computer with no intrinsic value. But so are all currencies. The difference is that it's more obvious with Bitcoin because the entire enterprise is actively marketed as nothing more than algorithmically-created data. It's one of their big selling points.

So that forces you to think about what the ultimate value of a Bitcoin can be. And if there isn't any, then why do dollars and yen have value? Why do IOUs passed around in prison camps have value? Or babysitting chits? Once you figure out what ultimately underlies the value of these various fiat currencies, you've taken a big step toward understanding why some currencies are better than others and why playing games with the debt ceiling is so stupid.

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New Republican Tax Plan Cuts Rates on the Rich

| Tue Feb. 25, 2014 11:02 AM EST

Excellent. Yet another tax plan from the Republican Party:

The long-awaited simplification of the tax code being drafted by House Republicans would slash the top income tax rate to 25 percent from 39.6 percent and impose a surtax on some of the nation’s wealthiest households.

Under the proposal, set for release Wednesday, the vast majority of taxpayers would see little change in the ultimate size of their tax bills, according to a nonpartisan congressional analysis of the legislation.

The vast majority, eh? Interesting. I wonder which tiny minority will see their taxes fall? Let me guess....

Of course, I could be proven wrong when the plan is released tomorrow and we get to see the analysis from the Joint Committee on Taxation. However, I'm not encouraged by the fact that reducing the number of tax brackets is apparently a key feature of this "simplification" plan. That doesn't simplify things by even an iota. The hard part of calculating your taxes, after all, is figuring out your taxable income. That takes about 99.9 percent of your time. Once that's all done, the final step is to look up the amount you owe in the tax table. That part takes about 30 seconds.

So the only real reason to reduce the number of brackets is to somehow lower taxes on the rich. There's just no other plausible motivation. And every tax plan ever proposed by a Republican over the past three decades has effectively done exactly that.

I'm also not encouraged by the fact that the plan lovingly sets out the precise tax rates for high-income earners but remains hazy about exactly which tax breaks it's going to eliminate to make up for the lower rates. It's funny that these Republican proposals always lay out the rates they want down to the percentage point, but suddenly get fuzzy when it comes to eliminating deductions and tax credits. Gotta defer to the will of Congress on that, the authors tell us.

You betcha. But I'd say it shows where their heart really is when it comes to taxes: cutting rates on the rich. So I think it's a good bet that this is what we'll see tomorrow.

But I could be wrong! Maybe Republicans have finally seen the light. I'll be waiting with bated breath for all the details.

UPDATE: I was wrong. Details here.

About Those New DOJ Guideline on Reporters' Records: There's Less Here Than Meets the Eye

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 6:53 PM EST

On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a new set of guidelines designed to make it harder for law enforcement officials to seize the records of journalists:

Among other things, the rules create a presumption that prosecutors generally will provide advance notice to the news media when seeking to obtain their communications records....The rules also address a law forbidding search warrants for journalists’ work materials, except when the reporter is a criminal suspect. It says that the exception cannot be invoked for conduct based on “ordinary news-gathering activities.”

....The rules cover grand jury subpoenas used in criminal investigations. They exempt wiretap and search warrants obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and “national security letters,” a kind of administrative subpoena used to obtain records about communications in terrorism and counterespionage investigations.

But Marcy Wheeler points out that most of the DOJ leak investigations that prompted media outrage last year and led to these new rules are, in fact, related to national security. And NSLs have the least oversight of any form of subpoena: they can be issued by just about anyone, and require no approval from a court.

Does this mean, as Wheeler pungently puts it, that these new guidelines are "worth approximately shit" in any leak investigation that's actually likely to take place? I'm not sure about that. You can't get a wiretap with an NSL, for example. Still, it certainly seems to be a Mack-truck-sized loophole in these new rules. There's less here than meets the eye.

Vladimir Putin May Be Tough, But He's Also Destroying Russia

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 2:28 PM EST

Steve Benen catches Bill Kristol saying this about Ukraine:

So, look; it's nice for President Obama to say it's not "a Cold War chessboard." I don't know why he says that with some disdain. That was not an ignoble thing for us to play on that chessboard for 45 years. We ended up winning that Cold War.

And I do think Putin thinks he's playing chess. He thinks he's playing even a rougher game than chess and we have to be able to match it.

I don't know squat about Ukraine, and I don't really know much about Russia either. So take what I'm about to say with a big grain of salt.

That said, here it is: do guys like Kristol ever learn? Yes, Putin is playing a rough game. But why does Kristol seem to think that's something we ought to emulate? Does he not realize that Putin is basically destroying Russia?

During the Cold War, hawks like Kristol routinely warned that the Soviet Union was overtaking us. And they honestly seemed to believe it. But why? Did they really think that the Soviet Union's command economy was producing faster growth and better weapons systems than ours? They seemed to, even while extolling the virtues of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. But in the end, it turned out that liberal democracy and free market capitalism really were better. The Soviet Union was collapsing before our eyes and we were barely even noticing it.

The same thing is happening now. Has Putin temporarily shored up Russia's standing in the world? Maybe. But if he has, he's done it at the expense of Russia's long-term health. This is, after all, a country with serious problems: terrible demographics, a rusty and aging industrial sector, and endemic corruption. Putin has done nothing to address any of this. Instead, he's papered it over by building an economy based on oligarchy, mineral wealth, and relentless bullying of both neighbors and citizens.

Will that work for a while? Sure. Russia has a helluva lot of mineral wealth. But it won't last forever, and in the background Russia is getting frailer and frailer. This is the result of Putin ignoring real problems and instead spending his time projecting toughness on the world stage.

That's what Kristol apparently thinks we should do. But he's wrong. Putin acts the way he does because he's ruling from a position of weakness and has no real solutions to Russia's long-term decline. In the end, the oil and gas will run out; Russia's neighbors will revolt the same way Ukraine is revolting; the oligarchs will cling on for dear life; and Russia's place in the world will continue to deteriorate. Anyone who thinks we should adopt even the tiniest piece of Putin's approach is just being willfully crazy.

Am I the Only Person in the World Who Thinks Windows 8.1 Is Great?

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 1:08 PM EST

The AP reports that Microsoft is prepping a Windows update: "Just one year after the Windows 8 launch, Microsoft issued a free update to address some of the gripes. The system now lets people run more than two apps side by side, for instance, and its Internet Explorer browser lets people open more than 10 tabs without automatically closing older ones."

Atrios comments: "Whenever I read about Windows 8.x I just shake my head."

This is something I'd usually address in a weekend post, but I was busy this weekend and I'm curious about something. I apologize in advance to the millions of you who couldn't care less about this.

Here's what I'm curious about: why is there so much griping about Windows 8.1? (I'm talking specifically about Windows 8.1 here, not the original Windows 8 release.) I ask about this as someone who's used both an iPad and an Android tablet extensively, and was surprised at just how much I like the Win 8.1 tablet I bought last month. I mostly got it as a lark, but it's been great. The tile interface is really nice: smooth, clean, and functional. The menu interface, which brings up menus by swiping in from the sides, is very handy. And if you don't like the tile interface, you can just boot directly to the old-school Windows desktop and never see it again.

Now, I'll admit that I haven't used Internet Explorer for at least 15 years, so I didn't know about the tab thing. That's kind of dumb. And getting rid of the Start button on the desktop—probably the single biggest source of complaints—was mind-bogglingly stupid. Still, you can fix that with a third-party add-on in about two minutes. It's really not worth whining about.

This isn't to say that Windows 8 doesn't have issues. There are some annoyances here and there, and the app ecosystem is anemic compared to Apple and Android—though, to my surprise, I managed to download very nice apps for every single application I care about. But overall, I've found it to be the best tablet OS I've used. The tile apps I've installed are mostly excellent; performance is good; I like having both a real file system and a real copy of Office; and it allows me to install a full desktop browser, not a stripped-down piece of junk that chugs along like a Model T. Practically the first thing I did when I got the tablet was to install Firefox and hit the sync button. That was great! A browser that actually does everything I want; supports all the add-ins I like; allows me to write blog posts without compromise; and has great performance. Android can't touch that, and it drove me nuts on my Asus tablet.

Obviously my reaction is based on the limited set of things I personally happen to do on a tablet. I don't listen to music or play games, for example, so I have no idea if it's any good in those areas. But I'm curious to hear from other folks who are using Win 8.1 on a tablet. Do you like it? Or does it really have lots of serious drawbacks that I just haven't run into?