Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 17 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 1:15 PM EDT

I don't know about you, but I could stand to have catblogging a little earlier than usual this week. What you see here is one of the many cat TVs now installed in our home. This is the dining room TV. There are also cat TVs in the kitchen and the study. The kitchen TV apparently has most of its good shows at night, and it's not clear what those shows are about. But they are extremely entrancing.

The dining room TV, by contrast, is sort of our workhorse cat TV. They both love it all day long. Needless to say, this is something new for both Hopper and Hilbert, since they spent the first ten months of their lives in a shelter, where cat TV mostly just starred other cats. Who knew there were so many other channels to choose from?

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What World Leader Has Done the Most Damage to the Global Economy?

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 12:57 PM EDT

Who's worse: Amity Shlaes or Angela Merkel? You have to give the nod to Merkel, of course. Unlike Shlaes, who is limited to cheering on horrifically bad ideas that would immiserate millions, Merkel has the power to actually implement horrifically bad ideas that immiserate millions. And she has. So Merkel it is.

Now, if instead the question were how Merkel compares to, say, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, then it would be a tougher choice. I think Merkel would still win, though. When it comes to bullheaded insistence on terrible economic policy, she's hard to top.

WHO Admits That It Failed Utterly In Its Response to Ebola

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

The Guardian has a fairly chilling story today about an internal report from the World Health Organization that basically concludes WHO completely botched its response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa:

The UN health agency acknowledged that, at times, even its own bureaucracy was a problem. It noted that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr Margaret Chan.

....At a meeting of WHO’s network of outbreak experts in June, Dr Bruce Aylward, who is normally in charge of polio eradication, alerted Chan to the serious concerns being raised about WHO’s leadership in west Africa. He wrote an email that some of the agency’s partners including national health agencies and charities believed the agency was “compromising rather than aiding” the response to Ebola and that “none of the news about WHO’s performance is good.”

Five days later, Chan received a six-page letter from the agency’s network of experts, spelling out what they saw as severe shortcomings in WHO’s response to the deadly virus.

Click the link for more details. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with someone about why everyone was freaking out about Ebola, and I mentioned that distrust of government experts was part of the reason. And that's hardly unreasonable. The CDC has now admitted that its response was slow and inept in many respects, and WHO was apparently just flatly incompetent. So when CDC experts tell us, for example, that stopping flights from west Africa would be counterproductive, is it any wonder that lots of people don't believe them? The truth is that I'm not sure I believe them either. After all, what have they done over the past couple of weeks to earn my trust?

Maybe this is unfair. And I'm hardly here to defend the media's insane, panic-promoting coverage of Ebola. Still, you can't publicly screw up over and over and then act bewildered when the public no longer trusts anything you say.

Chart of the Day: Inflation Is Down, Down, Down

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 9:33 AM EDT

Sometimes it's worth posting the same chart over and over in order to elbow it firmly into the public consciousness. So here's the inflation chart again. This version comes via Matt O'Brien, and it covers four of the biggest economies in the world. The message is simple: inflation is down everywhere. There are blips from month to month, but ignore them. The big picture couldn't be clearer.

Bottom line: Nobody knows what will happen in the long term, but for now we simply shouldn't be worrying about inflation. We should be worrying about growth and unemployment. Inflation just isn't a problem.

Talk, Talk, Talk to Your Kids

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 12:01 AM EDT

I've long been sort of interested in the ongoing research that shows the importance of building vocabulary in children. This is famously summarized as the "30 million word gap," thanks to findings that high-income children have heard 30 million more words than low-income children by age 3. But apparently new research is modifying these findings somewhat. It turns out that quality may be more important than quantity:

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

....In a related finding, published in April, researchers who observed 11- and 14-month-old children in their homes found that the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.

In practice, talking more usually leads to talking better, so there's probably a little less here than meets the eye. Still, it's interesting stuff. Regardless of parental education level, it turns out that simply interacting with your newborn more frequently and more conversationally makes a big difference. So forget the baby Mozart, all you new parents. Instead, just chatter away with your kids. It's cheaper and it works better.

Flooding the Zone on Ebola

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 9:02 PM EDT

For the record, I want to note that the top five stories currently featured on the Washington Post home page are about Ebola. If you count related pieces, it's the top nine. That is all.

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Iraq Is Cutting Off Electricity From Regions Held By ISIS

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 1:20 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating little factlet: Areas of northern Iraq controlled by ISIS have suffered "massive reductions" in electricity use. A small part of this is probably due to reduced demand thanks to the economic damage ISIS has wreaked. But Andrew Shaver says that's not the primary explanation:

The observed reductions have resulted from changes in supply. Fighting between Iraqi military and Islamic State forces has resulted in some downed transmission lines, although this factor alone cannot explain the massive reductions. And there is little evidence that the Islamic State seeks to keep to the lights off in the areas it now controls.

....A distinct possibility is that the Iraqi central government has cut off power to areas of the country under Islamic State control. Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government has done so. Under this scenario, Baghdad may be calculating that by restricting the supply of electricity, affected Iraqis will direct blame for the lost electricity on the occupying militants. If they do, the government may benefit as local Iraqis report on the Islamic State’s activities, passively resist the organization and so on.

Whatever the cause of the massive reductions, the longer the lights remain out, the more accustomed citizens in heavily Shiite areas like Basrah are likely to become to their newfound electricity levels. It may be worth considering how these communities will react if and when their electricity levels are reduced to once again provide for Iraq’s Sunni communities, some of which supported ISIS as the organization first pushed into Iraq.

I don't actually have anything to add to this. I just thought it was interesting and worth highlighting. Obviously it's far from the first time that a blockade of some kind has been used in war, but it's an intriguing example. I wonder if it's historically had much success?

We Require Affirmative Consent For Most Things. Why Not Sex?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Ezra Klein has taken a lot of heat for his defense of California's new "Yes Means Yes" law, which puts in place an "affirmative consent standard" on university campuses to decide whether a sexual assault has taken place. In other words, the mere lack of a clear "no" is no longer a defense against sexual assault charges. Instead, you have to make sure that your partner has given you a clear "yes."

Klein defends himself here in exhausting detail. Most of it you've probably heard before, but perhaps the most interesting part is this: "More than anything, what changed my mind on Yes Means Yes was this article by Amanda Taub, and some subsequent conversations with women in my life." Here's Taub:

When our society treats consent as "everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance," that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.

As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.

And here's Klein:

Every woman I spoke to talked about this tax in the same way: as utterly constant, completely unrelenting. It's so pervasive that it often goes unmentioned, like gravity. But it colors everything. What you wear. Who you have lunch with. When you can hug a friend. Whether you can invite someone back to your house. How you speak in meetings. Whether you can ask male colleagues out for a drink to talk about work. How long you can chat with someone at a party. Whether you can go on a date without having a friend who knows to be ready for a call in case things go wrong. Whether you can accept seemingly professional invitations from older men in your field. Whether you can say yes when someone wants to pick up the tab for drinks. For men, this is like ultraviolet light: it's everywhere, but we can't see it.

I have some hesitations about this new law, but it's hardly the apocalypse that some of its detractors have made it out to be. It doesn't change the standard of proof required in sexual assault cases and it doesn't change the nature of the proceedings that govern these cases. These may both be problematic, as some critics think, but they're separate issues. "Yes Means Yes" changes only the standard of consent, and does so in a pretty clear and unambiguous way.

Beyond that, keep in mind that this is just an ordinary law. If it were a ballot initiative, I'd be adamantly opposed. But it's not: if it turns out to work badly or produce unintended consequences, it can be repealed or modified. And it's not as if the current situation is some kind of utopia that should be defended at all costs. We'll know soon enough if the law's benefits are worth the costs. In the meantime, it seems like a worthwhile experiment in changing a culture that's pretty seriously broken.

Let Us Now Praise Placebos

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 11:02 AM EDT

Placebos are fascinating things. They shouldn't work, but they do. And it's not just pills, either. In certain cases, it turns out, fake knee surgery can relieve pain just as effectively as real knee surgery. Austin Frakt writes about the placebo effect today:

Given the strength and ubiquity of placebo effects, many physicians prescribe them. In fact, doing so was common practice before World War II, with supportive publications in the medical literature as late as the mid-1950s. This practice faded away after the rise of placebo-controlled trials that yielded treatments that were shown to be better than placebos, but it has resurfaced in new forms.

Today, the widespread use of antibiotics for conditions that don’t require them is a form of placebo prescribing, for example. Acetaminophen for back pain appears to be a placebo as well. These may help patients feel better, but only because they believe they will do so. The active ingredient adds nothing. To the extent some doctors trick patients in an effort to achieve a placebo effect, most patients don’t seem to mind. Nevertheless, deliberately harnessing just the placebo effect by prescribing a treatment that does not have any additional direct physical effect is an ethical gray area.

I didn't know that placebo prescriptions were common before World War II. Interesting! I've also lately been trying to figure out whether acetaminophen is actually doing anything for the back pain I'm suffering thanks to an injury a few months ago compounded by some more recent cat-related idiocy that aggravated it. It kinda seems like it might, but I can't really tell. But now I know. If there was an effect, it was a placebo effect.

Still, I'm disappointed that the placebo effect wasn't more significant for me. Maybe this is why I've never had a lot of luck with medication in the first place. It's not that it never works, but that most of it doesn't seem to work very well. Perhaps it's because I rarely have much confidence in the stuff, so I only get half the effect. It would probably help if I were more gullible.

The only recent exception I can think of is prednisone, which miraculously and instantly cured my breathing problems a few months ago. It only lasted a couple of days, unfortunately, though even after that my breathing was vastly improved, if not back to normal. But it did no good because, placebo or not, my doctors had no clue why it worked and were therefore unwilling to try more of it. Nor did it lead to any subsequent treatments since they had no clue what was going on and essentially decided to pretend the whole thing was just a coincidence. And people wonder why I'm skeptical of the medical profession.

What's the Point of an Unenforceable Noncompete Agreement?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 10:06 AM EDT

We all learned recently that sandwich shop Jimmy John's forces its workers to sign a noncompete agreement before they're hired. This has prompted a lengthy round of blogospheric mockery, and rightfully so. But here's the most interesting question about this whole affair: What's the point?

Laws vary from state to state, but generally speaking a noncompete agreement can't be required just for the hell of it. It has to protect trade secrets or critical business interests. The former makes them common in the software business, and the latter makes them common in businesses where clients become attached to specific employees (doctors, lawyers, agents) who are likely to take them with them if they move to a new practice. But none of this seems to apply to a sandwich shop. Clare O'Connor of Forbes asked an attorney about this:

“There’s never a guarantee, but I can’t see any court in the world upholding this,” said Sherrie Voyles, a partner at Chicago firm Jacobs, Burns, Orlove & Hernandez. “Every state law is different on this issue, but the general idea is that it’d only be upheld if it’s reasonable. The test would be, is there a near-permanent customer base? No. Customers at Jimmy John’s are probably also customers at Subway.”

Voyles said she can’t imagine any Jimmy John’s outlet actually enforcing this non-compete clause (indeed, there’s no evidence any have tried), but can’t see any reason it’d hold up in court. “It’s not the kind of interest protected by law,” she said.

The Wall Street Journal nonetheless reports that litigation over noncompete clauses has risen over the past few years, but this appears to be mostly in places like the software industry, where trade secrets are important. Not so much in the fast food business.

So again: what's the point? I've not heard of a single case of Jimmy John's actually taking someone to court over this, and it seems vanishingly unlikely that they would. That seems to leave a couple of options. First, it's just boilerplate language they don't really care about but left in just in case. The second is that they find it useful as a coercive threat. Sure, they'll never bother going to court, but maybe their workers don't know that—which means they're less likely to move across the street to take a higher-paying job. In other words, it's a handy tool for keeping workers scared and wages low.

So it's either stupid or scummy. Take your pick.

UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge, who actually knows what he's talking about, agrees that a noncompete clause like this is pretty much legally useless. But he quotes Cynthia Estlund explaining why it might have value anyway:

Even a manifestly invalid non-compete may have in terrorem value against an employee without counsel.

In terrorem? Lawyers actually use this phrase? I guess it gets the point across, doesn't it?