Kevin Drum

Relax, You're Probably Doing OK As a Parent

| Thu Apr. 2, 2015 10:02 AM EDT

A recent research paper suggests that the amount of time you spend actively parenting your children doesn't really make much difference. Lots of people have cried foul. Justin Wolfers is one of them:

This nonfinding largely reflects the failure of the authors to accurately measure parental input. In particular, the study does not measure how much time parents typically spend with their children. Instead, it measures how much time each parent spends with children on only two particular days — one a weekday and the other a weekend day.

The result is that whether you are categorized as an intensive or a distant parent depends largely on which days of the week you happened to be surveyed. For instance, I began this week by taking a couple of days off to travel with the children to Disneyworld. A survey asking about Sunday or Monday would categorize me as a very intense parent who spent every waking moment engaged with my children. But today, I’m back at work and am unlikely to see them until late. And so a survey asking instead about today would categorize me as an absentee parent. The reality is that neither is accurate.

Trying to get a sense of the time you spend parenting from a single day’s diary is a bit like trying to measure your income from a single day.

This really doesn't hold water. Sure, Justin's Monday this week might be different from his usual Monday. But if your sample size is big enough, this all washes out in the averages. And in this case, the sample size is 1,605, which is plenty big enough to account for individuals here and there whose days are atypical for the particular week of the study. This is basic statistics.

At the risk of igniting a parenting war—and no, I don't have children—middle-class parents tend to resolutely reject the idea that their parenting matters a lot less than they think. It's easy to understand why, but unfortunately, there's a considerable amount of evidence that parenting styles per se have a surprisingly small impact on the personalities and life outcomes of children. Obviously this doesn't hold true at the extremes, but for the broad middle it does.

In a way, this shouldn't come as a big surprise. We all know families whose children are wildly different even though they share parents and share half their genes just to make them even more similar. Is this because the children have been treated extremely differently? That's unlikely. They'll be treated differently to some degree—boys vs. girls, firstborns vs. middle kids, etc.—but the differences generally aren't immense. What's more, the differences that do exist are often reactions to the personalities of the kids themselves. A quiet child will get treated one way, while a loud, demanding child will get treated a different way. But parents shouldn't mix cause and effect: the child's temperament is largely driving the difference in treatment, not the other way around.

There's a second way this shouldn't come as a surprise: when you think about it, parenting is a surprisingly small part of a child's upbringing. There are also peers. And school. And innate personalities. And socioeconomic status. And babysitters. And health differences. Parenting is a part of the mix, but not even the biggest part. Maybe 20 percent or so. The rest is out of your direct control.

Judith Rich Harris made this case at length in The Nurture Assumption, and it's a controversial book. But I think she's right on the basics. As an example, think about this: kids whose parents come from a different country generally grow up speaking English with an American accent. Why? Because they take their cues from peers, not parents. Their peers, and their interactions with peers, are more important than their parents. This means that the single biggest difference you can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools.

Now, none of is a license to ignore your kids—I'm not personally as dismissive of parenting as Harris, and it seems clear that parenting styles do have some impact—but parenting probably matters less than you think. Kids are born with personalities, and to the extent they get molded, there are lots of influences. Direct parenting styles play only a moderate role.

But my experience is that middle-class parents pretty flatly reject this idea. They simply can't stand the idea that they're unable to guide their kids in the direction they want. And yet, the number of kids who don't take after their parents is enormous. Neat parents raise slobs. Quiet parents raise extroverts. Honest parents raise crooks. Pacifist parents raise Army recruits. Bohemian parents raise Wall Street analysts.

So this latest study is probably roughly right. You might not like it, but it's probably right. And there's good news here too: Don't beat yourself up too badly if you think you're blowing it as a parent. Unless you're way off the charts, you're probably doing OK.

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Once Again, We Are Unlearning the Lesson of the Great Debt Bubble

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 1:41 PM EDT

Is this good news?

Millions of Americans unable to obtain credit cards, mortgages and auto loans from banks will receive a boost with the launch of a new credit score aimed at consumers regarded as too risky by lenders.

Here's more:

The new score is largely a response to banks’ desire to boost lending volumes by increasing loan originations to borrowers who otherwise wouldn’t qualify, many of whom tend to be charged more for loans....The new score, which isn’t yet named, will be calculated based on consumers’ payment history with their cable, cellphone, electric and gas bills, as well as how often they change addresses and other factors.

....The new score could help applicants who don’t use credit often but are responsible with their monthly payments to get approved for financing....But many borrowers who don’t have a traditional FICO score are very risky.

....Besides increasing their pool of borrowers and loan originations, banks stand to earn more in interest revenue from riskier borrowers. Lenders charge higher interest rates and in some cases extra fees to borrowers who present a higher risk of falling behind on debt payments.

Color me deeply skeptical. Helping people who are denied credit simply because they don't currently use any credit sounds great. And assessing them by their reliability in paying normal monthly bills sounds perfectly reasonable.

But I very much doubt this is really the target of this initiative. After all, people with no previous credit history already have access to credit. They just have to start slowly, with low credit limits and so forth. This new scoring system probably won't change that.

What it will do is give banks an excuse to extend high-cost credit to risky borrowers—exactly the same thing they did during the housing bubble. As you may recall, that didn't turn out well, and there was a simple reason: risky borrowers are risky for a reason. When banks start to get too loose with their lending standards they end up dealing with default rates much higher than they expected.

This won't happen right away, of course. Banks will be relatively cautious at first. They always are. But just wait a few years and it will be a different story. Then the standards will be lowered just a little too far, the rocket scientists will do their thing, and we'll be headed toward yet another debt crisis.

This is almost certainly a bad idea. We'd all like to see everyone get a chance, but there are good reasons to restrict credit to borrowers who are likely to repay. We should remember that.

UPDATE: Megan McArdle has a different take here. I'm skeptical, but it's worth reading.

More Good News: Obamacare Has Not Overwhelmed the Health Care System

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Obamacare has provided health insurance to millions of people who previously lacked it. And yet, doctors' offices aren't jammed, as some people feared. Sarah Kliff takes a look at why this is, and I think this is the key point:

Federal data released earlier this month shows that the uninsured rate has fallen 35 percent since the coverage expansion began in 2014....In that way, the health law's insurance expansion was big. But put another way, it's also small: 14 million people gaining coverage in a country of more than 300 million residents is kind of a drop in the bucket. We're talking about 4 percent of the country going from uninsured to covered.

And it's not just that. Of that 4 percent, a lot of them were healthy people who simply didn't have much need for medical attention but were forced by the Obamacare mandate to purchase insurance anyway. So they got insurance, but since they were healthy, they still didn't go in to see their new doctors much. In reality, I suspect that the number of new patients with real medical needs probably amounted to 2-3 percent of the population. That's an extra burden on the health system, but not a huge one.

Medicare turned out to be similar when it began in 1965. As Kliff says, "In practice, these programs are relatively small: each only insured a small chunk of the population. Even though they're remaking American health care, they're doing so in a small, slow progression. That helps explain why none of these coverage expansions have overwhelmed doctors, despite our expectations."

IS Expansion Is More Illusion Than Reality

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 10:58 AM EDT

Islamic State has been getting a lot of attention lately, and not just for its grisly beheading videos coming out of Iraq and Syria. It also seems to be expanding rapidly, with offshoots taking credit for atrocities across northern Africa and the Middle East. But the LA Times wisely suggests today that this should all be taken with more than a pinch of salt:

Like an accelerating drumbeat, the deeds of groups purporting to be linked to Islamic State have mounted, each seemingly designed to exact a toll more cruel than the last....But many intelligence officials and academic experts are skeptical that the parade of gore represents a leap in the degree of command and control being exerted across the region by the group's leadership in Syria and Iraq.

....Some evidence points instead to looser arrangements that nonetheless carry significant benefits for Islamic State and its professed offshoots....Under such informal pacts, opportunistic but relatively obscure militant groups can make themselves appear to be far more powerful players in their chosen arena of conflict, while the media-savvy Islamic State can depict itself as having dramatically widened its geographic spread, an assertion that fits neatly with the group's grandiose claim that its "caliphate" is destined to hold sway across the Muslim world, while also diverting attention from its struggle to hang on to territory seized in Iraq and Syria.

There are homegrown terrorist groups all over the Middle East. Most of them have local grievances, but nonetheless find it useful to be viewed as an ally of a group like IS, which has a useful reputation for extreme brutality. Likewise, IS benefits from a public image of massive, unstoppable growth.

But both are more illusion than reality. Neither the amount nor the target of terrorist activity has changed much over the past year. We're just seeing the publicity results of a very loose "franchise" model combined with a lot of bluster, much as we did with Al Qaeda in the past decade. There's much less here than meets the eye.

That's not to say there aren't some dangers inherent in this model, and the Times does a good job of spelling them out. Generally speaking, though, IS remains in serious trouble in its home territory, and no amount of PR alliances elsewhere really changes that.

Quote of the Day: Republicans Hate Obamacare Except for the Parts They Don't

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 11:19 PM EDT

From Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who asked for horror stories about Obamacare and was instead deluged with stories from people who have been helped by it:

The stories are largely around pre-existing conditions and those that are getting health insurance up to age 26.

Well, sure. Everyone likes the idea of making sure that people with pre-existing conditions can get health insurance. Unfortunately, as Greg Sargent points out, Republicans can't just say they support Obamacare's pre-existing conditions provision but oppose the rest of it:

It’s true that Republicans tend to support provisions like the protections for preexisting conditions; after all, they are very popular. But they can’t be tidily untangled from the law. The ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions rely on the individual mandate, because without it, people would simply wait until they got sick to sign up for insurance, driving up premiums; instead, the mandate broadens the risk pool. And the mandate requires the subsidies, so that lower-income people who’d face a penalty for remaining uninsured can afford to buy coverage.

This is something that Republicans steadfastly refuse to admit, even though it's obvious to everyone with even a passing knowledge of how this stuff works. Sargent has more at the link about how this ties into the King v. Burwell lawsuit and Republican claims that they want to replace Obamacare with something better.

If Hillary Clinton Testifies About Her Emails, She Should Do It In Public

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 4:12 PM EDT

Here's the latest on Hillary Clinton's emails:

The chairman of the House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks asked Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday to appear for a private interview about her exclusive use of a personal email account when she was secretary of state.

....Mr. Gowdy said the committee believed that “a transcribed interview would best protect Secretary Clinton’s privacy, the security of the information queried, and the public’s interest in ensuring this committee has all information needed to accomplish the task set before it.”

Go ahead and call me paranoid, but this sure seems like the perfect setup to allow Gowdy—or someone on his staff—to leak just a few bits and pieces of Clinton's testimony that put her in the worst possible light. Darrell Issa did this so commonly that it was practically part of the rules of the game when he was investigating Benghazi and other Republican obsessions.

Who knows? Maybe Gowdy is a more honest guy. But since Clinton herself has offered to testify publicly, why would anyone not take her up on it? It's not as if any of this risks exposing classified information or anything.

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Ditch the Keyboard, Take Notes By Hand

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 11:45 AM EDT

Joseph Stromberg reports on recent research suggesting that taking notes by hand is way better for students than taking notes on a laptop:

The two groups of students — laptop users and hand-writers — did pretty similarly on the factual questions. But the laptop users did significantly worse on the conceptual ones.

The researchers also noticed that the laptop users took down many more words, and were more likely to take down speech from the video verbatim....As a final test, the researchers had students watch a seven-minute lecture (taking notes either on a laptop or by hand), let a week pass, then gave some of the students ten minutes to study their notes before taking a test.

Having time to study mattered — but only for students who'd taken notes by hand. These students did significantly better on both conceptual and factual questions. But studying didn't help laptop users at all, and even made them perform slightly worse on the test.

The researchers explain this by noting previous research showing the act of note-taking can be just as important as a later study of notes in helping students learn. When done with pen and paper, that act involves active listening, trying to figure out what information is most important, and putting it down. When done on a laptop, it generally involves robotically taking in spoken words and converting them into typed text.

Makes sense to me. No matter how good a typist you are, writing by hand is a more natural process that doesn't engage your entire brain—but it's also slower. You have to figure out what's being said and how to paraphrase it, and that act is part of learning. Rote note taking isn't.

Plus of course laptops are distracting. So put 'em away. Use the Cornell system if you want a system. But either way, use pen and pad, not keyboard and mouse.

Yemen "On the Verge of Total Collapse"

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 10:54 AM EDT

As expected, things are going from bad to worse in Yemen:

The United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned on Tuesday that Yemen was on the brink of collapse, as his office said that heavy fighting in the southern port city of Aden had left its streets lined with bodies and its hospitals full of corpses.

....Houthi forces were reported to have forced their way into Aden’s northeastern suburbs despite airstrikes by the Saudi Air Force and a naval blockade intended to sever the flow of weapons and other supplies to Houthi forces.

Well, perhaps the pan-Arab military force announced a few days ago will restore order? Unfortunately, Laura King of the LA Times reminds us that the last time Arabs fought together was during the 1973 war—which ended in disaster:

Now, nearly 50 years later, Arab states are joining forces again — this time, with the immediate aim of restoring order in chaotic Yemen, and moving as well to quell other regional conflicts.

But analysts say the nascent military alliance, whose planned formation was announced over the weekend by Arab leaders meeting in Egypt, could usher in new regional crises and intensify existing ones, sharpening sectarian differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and complicating already tangled national conflicts.

Yemen, whose tribes have for centuries been hostile to outsiders, could prove a deadly quagmire if conventional infantries from elsewhere in the Arab world attempt to wage a ground war against a homegrown, battle-hardened guerrilla force, the Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels. And a momentary sense of unity among Arab comrades-in-arms may fade as their sometimes-conflicting agendas come to the fore.

Read the whole thing. If it wasn't obvious already, King's piece makes it clear that the various Arab actors all have different goals and different agendas in Yemen. This is not likely to end well.

Yes, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker Are Different Kinds of Conservatives

| Mon Mar. 30, 2015 1:13 PM EDT

Jeb Bush may project a warmer, fuzzier, less hardnosed conservatism than Scott Walker, but is there really much difference between them? Greg Sargent isn't so sure:

Here’s what I’ll be watching: How will this basic underlying difference, if it is real, manifest itself in actual policy terms? On immigration...both support eventual legalization only after the border is secured. Will their very real tonal difference show up in real policy differences?

On inequality, Walker may employ harsher rhetoric about the safety net than Bush does, but the evidence suggests that both are animated by the underlying worldview that one of the primary problems in American life is that we have too much government-engineered downward redistribution of wealth....Will Walker and Bush differentiate themselves from one another in economic policy terms in the least?

Ed Kilgore agrees:

The important thing is not assuming Bush and Walker represent anything new or different from each other just because they offer different theories of electability and different ways of talking to swing and base voters. Much of what has characterized all the recent intra-party "fights" within the GOP has reflected arguments over strategy and tactics rather than ideology and goals. I'd say there is a rebuttable presumption that will continue into the 2016 presidential contest.

You'd think that the way to get a grip on this question would be to look at the 2000 election. Jeb's brother, George W. Bush, ran as a "compassionate conservative," and during the campaign he even made good on that. Remember his criticism of a Republican proposal regarding the EITC: "I don't think they ought to be balancing their budget on the backs of the poor"? Compassionate!

So how did that work out? Well, that's the funny thing: it's hard to say. Liberals tend to see Bush as a hardline conservative, but that's mainly because of the Iraq War and Karl Rove's hardball electoral tactics, which drove us crazy. Conservatives, by contrast, don't believe he was really all that conservative at all. And I think they have a point. In fact, I made that case myself way back in 2006 in a review of Bruce Bartlett's Imposter:

Bush may be a Republican—boy howdy, is he a Republican—but he's not the fire-breathing ideologue of liberal legend.

Don't believe it? Consider Bartlett's review of Bush's major domestic legislative accomplishments. He teamed up with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which increased education spending by over $20 billion and legislated a massive new federal intrusion into local schools. He co-opted Joe Lieberman's proposal to create a gigantic new federal bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. He has mostly abandoned free trade in favor of a hodgepodge of interest-group-pleasing tariffs. And after initially opposing it, Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill with almost pathetic eagerness in the wake of the Enron debacle, putting in place a phonebook-sized stack of new business regulations.

Want more? He signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, a bête noir of conservatives for years. His Medicare prescription-drug bill was the biggest new entitlement program since the Great Society. He initially put a hold on a wide range of last-minute executive orders from the Clinton administration, but after a few months of "study" allowed nearly all of them to stand. And he has increased domestic discretionary spending at a higher rate than any president since LBJ.

Obviously there's more to Bush's record than this—tax cuts, judicial appointments, the Iraq War, etc.—and he certainly counts as a conservative when you look at his entire tenure in office. The question is whether there's a difference between his brand of conservatism and, say, Scott Walker's or Ted Cruz's. I'd say there is, and that there's probably also a difference between Jeb Bush's brand of conservatism and the harder-line folks represented by Walker, Cruz, Santorum, and others. Tonal shifts and tactical choices often turn into real differences in who gets appointed to various cabinet positions and which priorities a new president will set. Jeb Bush is obviously no liberal. But would he govern differently than Scott Walker? My guess is that he would.

I Have a Pseudo-Flu

| Mon Mar. 30, 2015 12:44 PM EDT

When I was told that my daily injections of Neupogen would give me "flu-like symptoms," I wondered what that meant. Well, last night it meant that I felt a lot like I had the flu. I felt crappy indeed.

But there's some good news! "We want you to feel bad," my doctor told me last week a little apologetically. That means the drug is working. (That is, it's producing white blood cells and my body is reacting as if there were some kind of virus that had triggered this production.) So I guess it's working. Hooray!

I feel a little better this morning, but then, I usually feel a little better in the mornings. So we'll see how things go. It's just one thrill ride after another these days.