Kevin Drum

Charts of the Day: Americans Seem to Be About As Happy As Ever

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 1:06 PM EST

The new Case/Deaton paper about the rise in white deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses has inspired a lot of discussion about why Americans are apparently so despondent these days. Paul Krugman goes so far as to call it "existential despair."

I hate to throw a wet blanket on this pity party, but perhaps we should take a look at a few other data points before we decide that America is on the brink of a mass Jim Jones extinction event. For starters, here's a map from the 2015 World Happiness Report. Basically, it shows that most rich countries are pretty happy, including the United States:

For the record, we came in 15th. That's toward the low end of rich countries, but still pretty happy. Next up is a long-running Gallup poll about personal satisfaction:

Not much change there over the past few decades. Here's the Gallup mood tracking poll:

Not much change there either. Here's the University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey:

It goes down during recessions and up when recessions end. Finally, here's the Pollster aggregate of the right track/wrong track polls beloved of pundits everywhere:

"Right track" took a big jump after Barack Obama was elected president, and then dropped back into the high 20s, where it's pretty much stayed ever since.

If you listen to a lot of Fox News—or pretty much any news, to be fair—you'd think Americans lived lives of torment and despair. But if you actually ask them how they feel, nothing much seems to have changed recently. If you plot the right/wrong track polls back further, I think you'll see a long-term decline, which suggests that Americans are, indeed, increasingly frustrated by politics. But apparently they don't really care much about it either, since they remain pretty chipper regardless.

Now, I just pulled these charts sort of randomly, and perhaps there are others that show something different. I'm wide open to seeing them. I just think that if we're going to talk about "existential despair," we should at least engage with the data a bit. And as near as I can tell, the data suggests that Americans as a whole are about as happy and satisfied with their lives as they've ever been. This doesn't necessarily mean that white Americans—the subject of the Case/Deaton paper—are as happy as they've ever been, but if you want to make the case that they're increasingly morose, at least show me some evidence. OK?

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Forget Trump, Let's Talk About the Media

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 11:25 AM EST

Ashley Parker explains the new landscape of political advertising:

Thirty-second television commercials were once signs of a confident, well-financed candidacy for the White House. Now they are seen as a last resort of struggling campaigns that have not mastered the art of attracting the free media coverage that has lifted the political fortunes of insurgent campaigns like those of Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has surged to the top of the polls.

....In addition to having done countless interviews, Mr. Trump has been effective in using social media to attack his rivals, and many of his acrid and controversial quips on Twitter are rebroadcast by traditional news media outlets.

“I think he’s found ways to gain print and airtime by being available and quotable,” said Mike Schreurs, the founder and chief executive of Strategic America, a marketing and advertising firm based in Iowa. “He’s probably a more sophisticated user of media than any other presidential candidate we’ve ever seen.”

Can we stop right here? Donald Trump's "discovery," if it can be called that, is that the American media is a sucker for anything outrageous. That's it. They aren't covering Trump because he's Trump, they're covering him because he says Mexicans are murderers and rapists and politicians are all losers and Carly Fiorina is ugly. Whatever other virtues and faults Jeb Bush has, he's not willing to say stuff like that—so the media ignores him.

I'd like to see Parker do a follow-up piece that sheds the fiction of Trump somehow discovering a whole new strategy to get publicity. He hasn't. It's the same strategy he's always had to get airtime on entertainment shows. The difference is that most presidential candidates in the past figured they had to act at least nominally presidential if they didn't want to end up as ignored as Alan Keyes. But apparently the political media has changed. Reporters and editors are now as eager as any gossip show to cover obvious buffoonery, and both Trump and Ben Carson have ridden that wave.

Why? Is it just an artifact of struggling mainstream outlets that are desperate for something to pay the bills? Is it a sense that they have to compete with BuzzFeed and HuffPo? Forget Trump and Carson. Someone ought to write about changes in campaign reporting that have made the two of them possible.

Belgium is the World Leader in Sports Doping

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 10:37 AM EST

The New York Times tells us today that a new report says Russia is the world leader in doping. "The report recommended that Russia be suspended from competition by track and field’s governing body, and one of its authors said the commission would encourage the International Olympic Committee to bar Russia’s athletic federation from next summer’s Rio Olympics."

Fine by me. But take a look at the chart below. Belgium! They have less than a tenth of Russia's population but nearly half as many doping violations. On a per capita basis, they're the world leader by far. Why isn't anyone talking about banning Belgians from international competition?

Do Kids Start Kindergarten Too Early?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2015 9:40 AM EST

Tyler Cowen points us today to an interesting new study about kindergarten. It's from Denmark, as is so often the case, since the Danes keep very detailed records on their children.

In Denmark, it turns out, kids enter kindergarten in August of the year they turn six. So consider two kids. The first turns 6 on December 31, which means she was about 5½ when she started kindergarten. The second turns six on January 1, which means she has to wait until the following August, when she's about 6½. There's a one-year difference between entering kindergarten even though they're essentially the same age. So how do they do?

The authors find that on a wide range of measures—peer problems, emotional problems, socialization, etc.—the 5½-year-old kid does a little bit worse. However, on the inattention/hyperactivity score, the 5½-year-old kid does a lot worse. There's a large discontinuity at January 1, which suggests that the one-year difference in entering kindergarten makes a big difference.

Cowen comments, "I have not yet read the study, but it seems to me this paper, along with some other recent results, does not exactly help the case for preschool..." That may be true, but there are two pretty important caveats to keep in mind:

First, there's no way to tell if the older kids benefit because (a) they're older in absolute terms, or (b) they're older than most of their classmates. The authors claim that "our pattern of results speaks indirectly to the empirical salience of absolute and relative-age mechanisms," but that's a stretch. In the discussion section at the tail end of the paper they briefly say that their findings "are consistent" with an absolute-age mechanism, but that's it. There's nothing in the actual body of the paper that addresses this in any way.

Second, nearly all Danish children attend nurseries and public daycare starting at age one. So even if it turns out there's evidence for an absolute age mechanism, it may only be something specific to the curriculum of kindergarten, not to early schooling in general.

So it's an intriguing paper, but it's not at all clear that it tells us much about the benefits of early daycare/preschool. The authors are keen on a theory that young children benefit from pretend play, and they suggest that kindergarten at age five cuts this period of pretend play too short. That could be, but again, this mostly just argues for delaying the start of structured learning, not against the idea of early preschool. More research, please.

Paging Garry Trudeau

| Sun Nov. 8, 2015 8:24 PM EST

So who was in charge of the Yale parody paper in 1970, when it printed a fake notice that students in Psychology 10 needed to sit for a retest of their final exam? According to a tweet from Rapid Rar:

The editors of the Yale Record (creators of fake paper) in 1970 were Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury creator) and Tim Bannon.

So there you have it. It seems like these are the first two guys to ask about how this hoax played out, and whether Ben Carson's account is accurate. Trudeau is obviously easy to find, and Bannon appears to be a big cheese in Connecticut public affairs. Let's make some phone calls, people!

Ben Carson's Psychology Test Story Gets Even Weirder

| Sun Nov. 8, 2015 2:42 PM EST

More Ben Carson news today! You remember Doc Carson's story about the psychology test hoax that proved he was the most honest man at Yale? Well, Carson says it really happened, and the proof is on the right. It's a piece from the Yale Daily News about a parody issue of the News published by the Yale Record. Apparently the parody issue announced that some psychology exams had been destroyed and a retest would be held in the evening. Hilarious!

This makes the whole story even more fascinating. It's clear that Carson's account is substantially different from the parody. He says the class was Perceptions 301. He says 150 students showed up. He says everyone eventually walked out. He says the professor showed up at the beginning, and then again at the end. He says the professor gave him ten dollars. None of that seems to have happened.

And yet—it certainly seems likely that this is where Carson got the idea for his story. He remembered the hoax, and then embellished it considerably to turn it into a testimony to the power of God. This even makes sense. It seemed like a strange story for Carson to invent, and it turns out he didn't. He took a story he recalled from his Yale days and then added a bunch of bells and whistles to make it into a proper testimonial.

I have a feeling that posting this news clip won't do Carson any favors. Before, he could just insist that it happened and call the media a bunch of liars. Now, he has to defend the obvious differences between the actual hoax and what he wrote in his book. That's not likely to turn out well. His supporters will believe him utterly (just take a look at the comments to his Facebook post), but no one else will.

Then again, maybe all this stuff did happen. Maybe the hoaxsters got the professor to cooperate. Maybe 150 students showed up, not just "several." Maybe a fake photographer really took his picture. Maybe the professor gave him ten dollars. The kids who printed the parody issue are probably all still alive and should be able to clear this up. Let's go ask them.

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Let Us Now Praise Baby Boomers. And Berate Them Too.

| Sun Nov. 8, 2015 1:00 PM EST

Over at the Washington Post, it's time for some intergenerational griping. Jim Tankersley kicks things off with a piece blaming boomers for our economic woes. Really? Here's an economic history of the past 70 years: The US economy boomed for about three decades after the end of World War II, but ever since the mid-70s productivity growth has slowed down. That's pretty much it. It's not the fault of any particular generation. (Also: Tankersley should replace about half of his references to "boomers" with "Republicans." This would improve the accuracy of his piece considerably.)

Heather Havrilesky picks up the ball by blaming boomers for forcing our nostalgia on all the rest of you. Sure. I guess. I'm not quite sure how this makes boomers different from any other generation, but whatevs.

Finally, Sally Abrahms gamely tries to fight back, arguing that boomers aren't really all that rich, or healthy, or selfish, or technophobic, or sterile.

(Technophobic? Where does that come from? We're the generation of the IBM PC, the Apple II, the internet, and the Palm Pilot.1 Please.)

I guess this is all good fun, but you know what? Every generation has its highs and lows. The generation that freed the slaves also brought us Jim Crow. The generation that brought us the gilded age also invented the telephone. The generation that invented relativity and quantum mechanics brought us World War I.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at the highs and lows of the baby boomers. Then I'll apologize:

  • President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush. Plus a half claim to president Barack Obama.
  • Endless ads for pharmaceuticals on TV. The Sopranos.
  • Gay rights. Angry white men.
  • Star Wars. Star Wars prequels.
  • The rise of evangelical Christians. The rise of atheism.
  • Protesting the Vietnam War. Starting the Iraq War.
  • Sex. Drugs. Rock and roll.
  • John McEnroe. Dorothy Hamill.
  • Windows. The Macintosh.
  • Rolling Stones. Abba.
  • Feminist movement. Men's rights movement.
  • Collapse of labor unions. Obamacare (half credit).
  • Doting on our kids. Complaining about coddled kids these days.
  • Giving a shit. Selling out.

Seems like a draw. Just like with every other generation. That goes for all you Greatest Generation folks too, who won World War II and then elected Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. We all have some stuff to answer for. So on behalf of boomers everywhere, I apologize for disco. Are you happy now?

1I was in a Microsoft store recently, and as long as I was there I asked about a problem I'd been having. The guy who helped me seemed knowledgeable enough, but was unable to diagnose my problem and rather blithely suggested I just blow everything away and reinstall Windows. I wasn't too excited about this, and he gave me a look as if I were some pathetic oldster who just didn't understand how easy it was. I felt like telling him that I bought my first Windows upgrade before he was born. (Windows 3.1. TrueType fonts!) Like military force, reinstalling Windows is a last resort, not a first option.

A day later I fixed the problem myself by deleting a directory and letting OneDrive start its initial sync from scratch.

Pick Out Kevin's Lunch Today

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 1:50 PM EST

A few days ago, for no special reason, I began to wonder how many different fast food places I had eaten at during my life. So naturally I hopped over to Quick Serve Restaurant and took a look at the latest QSR 50, their ranking of the 50 biggest fast food joints. Then I went to lunch at Chick-fil-A, which was my 28th out of 50. Only 22 to go!

It's getting close to lunchtime. Which fine dining establishment should I cross off my list today?

Ben Carson and the Tale of Redemption

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 12:28 PM EST

For those of you who may have missed it, the Wall Street Journal decided to check out another Ben Carson story yesterday. Here's the story as recounted in Gifted Hands, about Carson's time as a student at Yale:

  • Ben is broke. Finds ten-dollar bill on sidewalk. Thank you, Lord!
  • A year later, Ben is broke again. Looks for ten-dollar bill, doesn't find one.
  • Ben gets notice that all the final exams in Perceptions 301 were accidentally lit on fire. He goes in for the retest.
  • The new test is really, really hard. A girl near Ben tells her classmate they should leave. "We can say we didn't read the notice."
  • Everyone starts leaving. Ben is conflicted. "I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn't lie and say I hadn't."
  • Eventually Ben is the only one left. The professor comes back in with a Yale Daily News photographer. The whole thing was a hoax, she said. "We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class. And that's you."
  • Ben concludes the story: "The professor then did something even better. She handed me a ten-dollar bill."
  • End scene.

And now for a couple of comments that I've seen this morning. First, Atrios remarks that the story is simply not believable. And that's true. I assume that's why the Journal decided to check it out. It sounded completely phony, and they concluded that it was, in fact, phony.

Second, Adam Serwer tweets that most of Carson's deceptions and embellishments are unnecessary. His personal story is great without them. And generally speaking, that's true. But in this case it's not.

Here's the thing: the beating heart of Carson's personal story is about his redemption by God. So he says he had a violent temper as a kid, and then became a new man after praying in a bathroom one day. In fact, God turned him around so thoroughly that West Point offered him a full scholarship. He went to Yale instead, where the Lord took care of his finances when he was in desperate straits. And as a bonus, it was because of his Christian inability to tell a lie.

Are these embellishments unnecessary? Sure. But Carson knows his audience. Serious evangelicals really, really want to hear a story about sin and redemption. That requires two things. First, Carson needs to have been a bad kid. Second, redemption needs to have truly turned his life around. He was already a student smart enough to get into Yale, so he needs more.

That's where these stories come in. He needs to exaggerate how violent he was when he was young. And after he finds God, he needs to exaggerate how great everything turned out. This culminates in the absurd story about his psychology class. No one who's not an evangelical Christian would believe it for a second. But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time. They expect testimonies like this, and the more improbable the better. So Carson gives them one. It's clumsy because he's not very good at inventing this kind of thing, but that doesn't matter much.

Not all of Carson's deceptions follow this pattern. But several of them do. And they were far from unnecessary. Carson needed to sell his story to evangelicals, and that required a narrative arc as formulaic as any supermarket romance novel. So he gave them one.

It's Not Just Middle-Aged Men Who Are Dying Younger

| Sat Nov. 7, 2015 10:56 AM EST

That paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case about middle-aged white men dying at higher rates seems to be having a second life, so I want to highlight something that I might have buried in my initial post about it: it's not just middle-aged men. This is right in the paper, with a colorful chart and everything. Every single white age group, from 30 to 65, has seen a big spike in deaths from alcohol, suicide, and drug overdoses:

And it's white women too:

The change in all-cause mortality for white non-Hispanics 45–54 is largely accounted for by an increasing death rate from external causes, mostly increases in drug and alcohol poisonings and in suicide. (Patterns are similar for men and women when analyzed separately.)

So why is everyone focusing solely on middle-aged men? Because that's what the paper focuses on. However, the authors make it very clear that every age group is affected:

The focus of this paper is on changes in mortality and morbidity for those aged 45–54. However, as Fig. 4 makes clear, all 5-y age groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.

In other words, the phenomenon they describe applies to all white men and women between the ages of 30-65. The only difference among midlife white men is that declining overall mortality has turned into increasing overall mortality. Among other groups, declining mortality presumably turns flat, or perhaps declines less rapidly—though the authors don't say.

In other words, midlife men make for a more dramatic chart because the line actually changes direction. But there's nothing magic about zero. If you go from a slope of -5 to -1, that's still a lot even if the line hasn't changed direction. What's more, whatever it is that makes the change in overall mortality bigger for midlife men, it's not the suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses that the authors focus on. The chart above makes that clear. In fact, the midlife group appears to have seen a smaller growth in those things than both the younger group and the older groups. This would be clearer if the chart were drawn differently, but since the authors don't include a table with raw data, I can't do that.

Bottom line: There's been a sharp increase in death by suicide/alcohol/drugs among all whites of all age groups from 30-65. Whatever the reason, it's not something that applies solely to middle-aged white men.