Kevin Drum

Eurozone Fiddling While Greece Burns

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 3:42 PM EST

Hmmm. Things are not looking good in Greece:

A meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Greece's debt crisis broke up in acrimony on Monday evening, further dimming hopes of a speedy resolution to problems that could result in the new Greek government soon running out of money.

Just before the meeting ended, a Greek official dismissed the latest proposal by its European creditors as “unreasonable and unacceptable.” The proposal had called for Greece to abide by the current terms of its bailout program.

In other words: "Our offer is this: nothing." Greece needs to toe the line and will be given no quarter. Paul Krugman considers the possibility that the eurozone ministers are just idiots, and finds it unlikely. They know exactly what they're doing:

Alternatively, and I guess more likely, they’ve decided to push Greece over the edge. Rather than give any ground, they prefer to see Greece forced into default and probably out of the euro, with the presumed economic wreckage as an object lesson to anyone else thinking of asking for relief. That is, they’re setting out to impose the economic equivalent of the “Carthaginian peace” France sought to impose on Germany after World War I.

Either way, the lack of wisdom is astonishing and appalling.

This is a helluva game of chicken everyone is playing. But Krugman might be right. There's so much genuine acrimony on both sides—Germans think the Greeks are chronic liars and spendthrifts1, Greeks think the Germans are self-righteous bullies—and there's so much political incentive not to give ground, that in the end, maybe no one will give ground. And then Greece will default and will get kicked out of the euro.

If this happens, it would certainly be catastrophic in the short term, but it's possible that it would be better for Greece in the long term. Still, keep in mind that we might not find out. In the past, the standard pattern for eurozone crises was pretty simple: lots of threats back and forth, and no resolution until literally the last hour of the last day. We still have a couple of weeks to go, and it might work out the same way this time. Stay tuned.

1An opinion that may have calcified even further over the past couple of months as Greece's finances deteriorated fairly badly. Short version here, details here.

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A Simple Chart That Shows We've Locked Up Too Many People

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 12:55 PM EST

Correlation is not causation. This has recently become something of an all-purpose comeback from people who want to sound smart without really understanding anything about a particular research result. Still, whether it's overused or not, it's a true statement. When two things move up and down together, it's a hint that one of them might be causing the other, but it's just a hint. Sometimes correlation implies causation and sometimes it doesn't.

The inverse statement, however, is different: If there's no correlation, then there's no causation. With the rarest of exceptions, this is almost always true. Dara Lind provides an example of this as it relates to crime and mass incarceration.

The chart on the right shows the trend in various states at reducing incarceration. If reducing incarceration produced more crime, you'd expect at least some level of correlation. The dots would line up to look something like the red arrow, with lots of dots in the upper left quadrant.

Obviously we see nothing like that. In fact, we don't appear to see any significant correlation at all. As Lind says, the scatterplot is just a scatter.

It's possible that a more sophisticated analysis would tease out a correlation of some kind. You can show almost anything if you really put your mind to it. But if a simple, crude scatterplot doesn't show even a hint of a correlation, it's almost a certainty that there's nothing there. And in this case it demonstrates that we've locked up too many people. Mass incarceration hit the limit of its effectiveness in the late-80s and since then has been running dangerously on autopilot. It ruins lives, costs a lot of money, and has gone way beyond the point where it affects the crime rate. It's well past time to reverse this trend and get to work seriously cutting the prison population.

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 February 2015

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 2:20 PM EST

Chemotherapy may be over, but I still have to go in to the infusion center once a month for a bone-strengthening treatment. Unlike chemo, which was a pretty quick procedure, this actually takes a while, and this month it happens to be scheduled for mid-morning today. So that means I'm checking out early. Sorry about that. On the bright side you get early catblogging out of the deal. Here are the sibs posing for their dual royal portrait, Hopper on the left and Hilbert on the right. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Republicans Are Cutting Taxes on the Rich and Raising Them on the Poor

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 1:52 PM EST

Shaila Dewan surveys the tax policies of actual Republicans who are governing actual states:

A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that, in many cases, would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.

Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, virtually all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.

Favorite targets for the new taxes include gasoline, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general (Governor Paul LePage of Maine would like to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts). At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. In an effort to relieve some of the added pressure, Mr. LePage’s plan includes a tax break for the lowest-income families.

This gets back to what I was talking about a couple of days ago. Contrary to what Republican reformicons are proposing, Republicans on the ground continue to focus most of their attention on cutting taxes on the rich. Or, in a pinch, if they have to raise revenue, they're raising it from the poor and middle class. This is despite the well-known fact that virtually all of the income gains in recent years have gone to the well-off.

There are ways to make consumption taxes progressive. It's not impossible. The problem is that Republicans simply don't want to. Their goal is, and always has been, to reduce taxes on the wealthy. Any other tax agenda just isn't on the table.

Republicans Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot Over Net Neutrality

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:35 PM EST

I've written before about the GOP's peculiarly uncompromising stance on net neutrality. At its core, net neutrality has always been a battle between two huge industry groups and therefore never really presented an obvious reason for Republicans to feel strongly about one side or the other. But they've taken sides anyway, energetically supporting the anti-neutrality broadband industry against the pro-neutrality tech industry. Today an LA Times article dives more deeply into the problems this is causing:

As tech firms and cable companies prepare for a fight that each says will shape the future of the Internet, Silicon Valley executives and activists are growing increasingly irritated by the feeling that the GOP is not on their side. Republican leaders have struggled to explain to their nascent allies in the Bay Area why they are working so hard to undermine a plan endorsed by the Obama administration to keep a level playing field in Internet innovation.

....The fight comes at a time when Republicans had been making gains in Silicon Valley, a constituency of well-heeled donors and coveted millennial-generation voters who have generally been loyal to Democrats....Republicans have hoped to seize on recent Democratic policy moves that riled tech companies, including a push for strict anti-piracy rules and the Obama administration's continued backing of National Security Agency surveillance of Internet users.

But the hot issue in Silicon Valley now is net neutrality. And on that issue, the GOP and the tech industry are mostly out of step...."It is close to a litmus test," said Paul Sieminski, a Republican who is the general counsel to Automattic, the company that operates Web-making tool WordPress.com. "It's such a fundamental issue for the Internet," said Sieminski, who has been active in fighting for net neutrality. "I guess it is a proxy on where a candidate may stand on a lot of issues related to the Internet."

The obvious and cynical explanation for the Republican view is that President Obama is for net neutrality, so they're against it. The more principled view is that they hate regulation so much that they don't care what it costs them to oppose net neutrality. It's regulation, so they're against it.

Neither one truly makes sense to me, and I suppose their real motivation is a combination of both. Most Republicans probably started out moderately skeptical of net neutrality because it represented a new layer of regulation, and then gradually adopted an ever more inflexible opposition as it became clear that Obama and the Democratic Party were staking out the pro-neutrality space. Eventually it became a hot button issue, and now the die is cast.

But it's sure hard to see what it buys them. It's already eroding any chance they had of appealing to the growing tech industry, which is going to be even more firmly in the Democratic camp after this. And while the support of the broadband industry is nice, it's not big enough to tip the fundraising scales more than a few milligrams in either direction.

All in all, it's an odd fight. It remains unclear to me why Republicans have chosen this particular hill to die on.

Republicans and Democrats Are Both in Favor of Approval to Fight ISIS

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 11:44 AM EST

So what does the public think of President Obama's request for an authorization to use military force against ISIS? According to a new NBC/Marist poll, they're basically in favor:

Greg Sargent has a partisan breakdown, and approval of the AUMF is surprisingly bipartisan: 60 percent of Democrats approve and 52 percent of Republicans approve. So I imagine this is going to pass before long, probably without too many major changes.

The poll has some other responses that are a bit odd. Only 45 percent of the respondents have much confidence in President Obama's strategy, but 66 percent think we're going to be able to defeat ISIS anyway. Is this a triumph of partisanship over actual belief, or the other way around? Or just the usual incoherence you get in practically every poll about everything?

In any case, it will be interesting to see what line Fox News and the rest of the right-wing punditocracy take on this, and whether this affects future poll results. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a much bigger partisan split on this question a couple of weeks from now.

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The Kansas Economy Sucks, So Let's Do a Little Gay Bashing to Distract Everyone

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 6:55 PM EST

Michael Hiltzik reports on Kansas governor Sam Brownback's move this week to revive the culture wars:

Brownback's latest stunt is to abolish state employees' protections against job discrimination based on sexual orientation. In an executive order Tuesday, Brownback reversed a 2007 order by his Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius, that had brought state anti-discrimination policies in line with most of corporate America and 31 other states.

....Possibly, Brownback is hoping to deflect attention from the disastrous condition of the Kansas state budget, which has been hollowed out by Brownback's extremely aggressive tax-cutting. Income tax receipts continue to fall below Brownback's rolling projections -- the latest estimates show them coming in 2% below forecast made just last November.

....The economic suffering that Brownback's policies have imposed on Kansans is bad enough; to add to the pain by removing protections against workplace harassment over sexual orientation is a new low.

As Hiltzik points out, there's no special reason for Brownback to do this now. The anti-discrimination policy has been in place for eight years, and Brownback apparently felt no particular angst about it during his entire first term.

But things are different now. When he was first elected, Brownback promised that his planned tax cuts on the rich would supercharge the Kansas economy and bring about prosperity for all. That turned out to be disastrously wrong, and now he's slashing spending on education and the poor to make up for the catastrophe he unleashed. This is understandably unpopular, so what better way to distract the rubes than to engage in a bit of gay bashing? That'll get everyone riled up, and maybe they won't even notice just how much worse off they are than they used to be. It's a time-honored strategy.

We Put Way Too Many People in Prison

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 3:11 PM EST

Earlier this morning I mentioned the Brennan Center's new report on the decline in crime over the past two decades, and one of its prime focuses is on incarceration. One of the authors of the report explains at 538 what they found. Basically, it turns out that locking up more people does have a deterrent effect, but that effect plummets when you start locking up people at huge rates—as we've done:

It’s because of these elevated levels that we’re likely to see diminishing returns. If we assume — fairly! — that the criminal justice system tends to incarcerate the worst offenders first, it becomes clear why. Once the worst offenders are in prison, each additional prisoner will yield less benefit in the form of reduced crime. Increased incarceration — and its incapacitation effect — loses its bite.

....And diminishing returns are what we saw. Crime rates dropped as incarceration rates rose, for a time, but incarceration’s effect on crime weakened as more people were imprisoned. An increase in incarceration was responsible for something like 5 percent of the decrease in crime in the 1990s, when its levels were lower, but has played no meaningful role since. If I were speaking to a fellow economist, I’d say the incarceration elasticity of crime is not distinguishable from zero. At a cocktail party, I’d say that crime no longer responds to changes in incarceration.

That sounds about right to me. The 5 percent number might be debatable, but the basic idea that we went way overboard on incarceration is hard to argue with. It was pretty reasonable to believe that incarceration rates were too low in the 60s and early 70s, and that tougher sentencing laws would help deter crime. So we passed tougher laws and built more prisons. But by the end of the 80s, we'd almost certainly gone as far as we needed to. Locking up ever more people just wasn't having much of an effect. But we did it anyway. We didn't just double prison capacity, we doubled it again and then built even more after that. I'd say it's almost a dead certainty that the last doubling was simply wasted money that had no effect on crime rates at all.

It's also worth noting that this is an inherently hard subject to study. After all, crime rates did skyrocket during the 70s and 80s. And if you have twice as much crime, then you're likely to lock up twice as many people. Needless to say, that doesn't necessarily mean that higher incarceration rates had an effect on anything. It was the other way around: higher crime led to higher incarceration rates. That's perfectly natural, but it makes it hard to then work backwards and try to estimate the effect in the other direction.

There's a Labor Dispute at West Coast Ports, But No One Will Say What It's About

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 2:29 PM EST

West Coast port operators are shutting down for a few days because "they don't want to pay overtime to workers who, they allege, have deliberately slowed operations to the point of causing a massive bottleneck." This is part of an increasingly rancorous labor dispute, but as usual, we really have no idea what the dispute is about:

Dockworkers are among the best paid blue-collar workers in the country, earning between $26 and $41 an hour, depending on experience and skill.

Union spokesman Craig Merrilees has said the two sides are very close to a deal, but has declined to say what is tying up the talks....According to employers, a major hurdle is a union demand that both sides have the ability to unilaterally remove local arbitrators at the end of a labor contract....Employers say that if such a change is made, alleged union slowdown tactics would become constant, because the union could "fire judges who rule against them."

The union said Wednesday that employers are "grossly" mischaracterizing its current bargaining position. "It seems to us that the employers are trying to sabotage negotiations," union President McEllrath said.

This is pretty normal, and it's one of the things that makes it hard to unilaterally support either side in labor disputes like this. We already know that dockworkers are very well paid, and that's apparently not a bone of contention. But what's the deal with the arbitrators? Who has the better of the argument? There's no telling.

The public probably doesn't care much about this unless it eventually gets nasty enough that it affects the ability of stores to keep stuff in stock. So maybe public opinion doesn't matter. But to the extent it does, it sure seems like unions would have a better chance of getting public support if they were more forthcoming about exactly what it is they're holding out for.

(Or maybe not. One of the big problems with the huge decline in union density over the past few decades is that the public no longer has much of a stake in supporting unions. In the past, there was some sense of solidarity. If one union negotiated a healthy raise, it increased the odds of everyone else getting a healthy raise too. But not anymore. If the dockworkers do well, they're just the last of the lucky bastards with good union jobs. The rest of us get nothing from it except maybe higher prices for the goods and services we buy. It's hard to see a way out of this dynamic.)

Lead and Crime: The Brennan Center Weighs In

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 1:08 PM EST

The Brennan Center has released a lengthy report examining the reasons for the big crime decline of the 90s and aughts, and one section highlights the work of Jessica Reyes and others linking crime levels to gasoline lead emissions:

Reyes, and other researchers, have found that lead is connected to aggressive behavior and behavioral problems because it affects brain development of children....Reyes found that the decrease in lead caused a remarkable 56 percent of the decrease in violent crime in the 1990s....This theory had been previously suggested by another economist, Rick Nevin, in 1999. He illustrated a similarity in the trends between violent crime and gasoline lead 23 years prior.

....In December 2013, an NAS roundtable discussed the lead theory. There was an extended discussion in which most participants seemed to concur that the 56 percent drop in crime attributed to lead by Reyes was likely too large. Most experts seem to believe that lead played some role, but maybe not as high as the finding presented by Reyes. More research is needed to establish lead’s precise role in the crime decline.

....The authors do not draw a conclusion on this theory because they could not secure complete state-by-state data on this variable level for 1980 to 2013, as needed for the regression....Based on current research and expert reactions, it is possible that lead played some role in the 1990s drop in violent crime but perhaps not as large as that found by Reyes. Further, lead’s effect on the crime drop likely waned in the 2000s.

Now, you might think I'd be annoyed that lead was the 13th out of 13 theories they looked at, and that they downplayed the likelihood of a significant role for lead. In fact, I'm thrilled. This is one of the first reports I've seen that gives lead a substantial section of its own, and the authors clearly take the idea seriously. The fact that they want more research before committing themselves further is perfectly reasonable. It's a new theory that needs more research from people not already committed to it one way or the other.

A couple of notes, though. First, if the authors are only willing to draw conclusions if they can get complete state-by-state data on lead emissions, then they're stacking the deck. That data simply isn't available, just as it's not available for most things in a reliable way. Additionally, since people move in and out of states, even perfect data would be incomplete. This shouldn't be an excuse for not analyzing the data that does exist, especially since it exists at local, state, national, and international levels.

It's also worth noting something that I feel like I have to say again and again: state-level regressions aren't the only evidence in favor of the lead-crime theory. In fact, regressions in general aren't the only evidence available. There are also prospective studies and brain imaging studies that point in the same direction. Nobody should make the mistake of thinking that if only we had better data and could run cleaner regressions we'd get closer to the truth. What we really need at this point are tests of very specific hypotheses of the lead-crime theory. If, for example, a detailed cohort-level study failed to show age-specific effects of lead on crime, that would be a big blow to the overall theory. That would be a useful study—though, as usual, it would probably be very difficult to carry out properly because the raw data is unlikely to exist in detailed and reliable form.

I'd also note that although the authors are correct that the role of lead waned in the 2000s, it probably wasn't until the late 2000s. Lead likely played a significant role in crime declines up to about 2008 or so, when the last cohort of children born in 1986 turned 22. Changes in crime rates since then are most likely due to other factors.

(Changes in incarceration rates, however, lag crime rates, and will probably be affected by the end of leaded gasoline for another decade or two. And in other countries, which banned lead in the 90s or the early aughts, the effect on crime rates will probably continue to be felt for another decade at least.)

Outfits like the Brennan Center are fundamentally interested in things like incarceration, poverty, and policing, and it's only natural that these are the things they spend the most time discussing. Thus, the mere fact that they gave lead any attention at all is good news. It means people are taking the idea seriously, and eventually that might lead to the further research they'd like to see.

As always, if you want to read the complete argument in favor of the lead-crime hypothesis, it's right here at Mother Jones in my 2013 piece, "America's Real Criminal Element." Just click for the whole story.