Kevin Drum

The World of Hypertasking

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 12:32 PM EDT

Is manic multitasking good or bad for us? I don't know, but Tyler Cowen says he's suspicious of research showing reduced performance for hypertaskers because they always impose a particular kind of multitasking on the test subjects:

I'm simply not convinced or even moved in my priors by these studies. I can't operate a German Waschmaschine (imposed on me), and that's without an internet connection running in the background.1 Nor would I do well if confronted by, say, the open internet windows of Brad DeLong, or his devices, whatever they may be, and in the broader scheme of things surely he counts as intellectually close to me. Yet overall my life runs quite smoothly.

To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine! Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.

Obviously there's something to this. When you choose a particular kind of multitasking and adapt to it, your performance might be dramatically different than it is when you're multitasking in an unfamiliar environment that someone else dictates.

Still, I'd caution against trying to draw too many conclusions from personal experience, and that goes double for someone like Tyler. The problem is that Tyler is not just a smart guy. He's not just a top 1% smart guy. He is, as near as I can tell, approximately a top thousandth of one percent smart guy. He's off the charts smart, and that means his brain is nowhere within light years of being a good proxy for the vast majority of the rest of us. In diluted form, this also applies to the kind of people who read this blog (or Tyler's): we might not all be supergeniuses, but we skew pretty bright and educated. Our experiences, our brains, our level of self-control, and our demographic breakdown just isn't typical — and it's double plus untypical of your average teenager.

Beyond that, of course, most of us are also pretty poor judges of our own performance. The problem with multitasking is that most people think they're pretty good at it, just like most people think they're above average drivers. But you might not be! Just sayin'.

Now, this works in the opposite direction too. Nick Carr, who wrote The Shallows, thinks his attention span has diminished since he started using the internet heavily. Me too. But guess what? Maybe it's just because we're aging and our interests have changed. Or maybe we're engaging in rose-colored hindsight, overestimating just how focused we were in the past. Who knows?

What I can say is that I'm pretty firmly in the camp that thinks the internet and its increased focus on multitasking almost certainly has both a good and bad side. Reduced attention span is bad. Gracefully handling frequent interruptions is good. Why pretend otherwise? But these discussions always seem to break down pretty quickly between one side that thinks a bunch of fogeys are telling kids to get off their lawns and an opposite side that thinks we're becoming a nation of distracted goof offs. I just don't get this. Research is good. We should do more of it. That research is almost certain to suggest both positives and negatives from heavy use of the internet and heavy investment in multitasking, and there's not much point in scoffing at whichever half you happen to dislike. We should welcome research that helps us understand what's going on, and hopefully starts to give us some guidance about how each of us personally can figure what works and what doesn't in a modern, hyperactive environment that, let's face it, isn't going to go away. Just don't expect all the news to be good.

For more, see Jonah Lehrer here. He has a nice discussion of the general issues, one that distinguishes between internet use and multitasking, along with a reply from Carr.

1I'm actually not sure what this example has to do with anything, to be honest. I'd probably have a hard time figuring out how to work a German washing machine too. Still, consider the double-sided nature of what this might mean. On the one hand, some things in life are just hard to figure out whether or not you're multitasking. On the other hand, perhaps this suggests that although people can find a multitasking routine that suits them for day-to-day use, it also makes it harder for them to respond to new and unforeseen problems that require them to tear themselves away from their routine. Maybe.

For another view on this, talk to any computer programmer and ask them about interruptions. Be prepared for an earful when you do, though.

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Recession Finally Over, Just Not For You

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 10:49 AM EDT

Good news! The recession is over:

Unemployment remains at near-record levels, and most Americans are struggling to rebuild their battered finances. But the country's wealthy are once again doing just fine, thank you.

....Last year the number of millionaires bounced up sharply, new data show. And after that decline and rebound, the millionaire class held a larger percentage of the country's wealth than it did in 2007.

....The [Boston Consulting Group's] latest report on wealth, one of the first broad depictions of how wealth shifted in 2009, indicates that the number of U.S. households with at least $1 million in "bankable" assets climbed 15% last year to 4.7 million after tumbling 21% in 2008.

Well, you know what I mean: the recession is over for everyone who counts. As for the rest of you, it's time to suck it up. We need austerity, people, not out-of-control spending. So stop whining, OK?

Balls and Strikes and the Roberts Court

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

During his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court in 2005, John Roberts assured senators that his job as a judge was merely "to call balls and strikes." It was a familiar, homey allusion, deliberately designed to suggest that ideology didn't — or anyway, shouldn't — play a role in deciding cases. He would be interpreting the plain meaning of the law, not making up his own.

But as fond as conservatives are of this kind of imagery, it's mostly a myth. Recently the Constitutional Accountability Center took a look at Supreme Court rulings during the Roberts era, but instead of looking at hot button social issues they looked at the kinds of rulings that, although they get less attention, actually take up the bulk of the court's time: those involving business and corporate law. The results were pretty startling.

A good guidepost to these rulings is the position taken by the United States Chamber of Commerce, which bills itself as the "voice of business." Roberts's record? In the past five years he's sided with the Chamber 70% of the time. In close cases he's sided with the Chamber a stunning 90% of the time. As an umpire, it turns out that if you're filing a case against the business community Roberts has declared a strike zone only a few inches wide.

And Roberts isn't alone. Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia also sided with the Chamber over 70% of the time. (Alito sided with the Chamber a stunning 100% of the time in close cases.) Clarence Thomas took their side 68% of the time. And "centrist" Anthony Kennedy? He clocked in around 66%.

The kinds of regulatory issues involved in these cases are, in the long run, more important than all but the most explosive culture war cases. They include things like Citizens United, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums in political campaigns; Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which effectively eliminated the right to sue for race or gender pay discrimination; and Exxon v. Baker, which slashed the damage award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case by 80%. And those are only the big ones. You can add in hundreds of other, smaller cases that have slowly but steadily chipped away at the right to hold corporations accountable over the past three decades.

And what about liberals on the court? Well, Souter and Breyer sided with the Chamber nearly half the time, and even Stevens and Ginsburg favored business interests more than a third of the time. The lesson here is that, contrary to what conservatives want everyone to think, they don't just "call balls and strikes" or "rely on the plain meaning of the constitution." Ideology matters. In fact, when it comes to business issues, conservative judges make far more fervent ideologues than liberals. Caveat emptor.

UPDATE: Want to read more about the whole "balls and strikes" analogy? Sure you do! Check out Aaron Zelinsky's Yale Law Journal essay, "The Justice as Commissioner: Benching the Judge-Umpire Analogy," where he says Supreme Court justices aren't like umpires, they're more like the commissioner of baseball.

Is the BP Oil Spill Good for Corn Farmers?

| Fri Jun. 11, 2010 1:49 AM EDT

The BP oil spill is bad enough already. But I'm here to make it even worse. Here is Robert Bryce in Slate today:

The most disgusting aspect of the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico isn't the video images of oil-soaked birds or the incessant blather from pundits about what BP or the Obama administration should be doing to stem the flow of oil. Instead, it's the ugly spectacle of the corn-ethanol scammers doing all they can to capitalize on the disaster so that they can justify an expansion of the longest-running robbery of taxpayers in U.S. history.

....Why does the ethanol business need federal help? The answer is so disheartening that after five years of reporting on the corn-ethanol scam, I find it difficult to type, but here goes: The corn-ethanol industry needs to be bailed out by taxpayers because the industry was given too much in the way of subsidies and mandates. And now the only way to solve that problem is — what else? — more subsidies and mandates. The BP mess provides the industry with the opening it needs to win those subsidies from the federal government.

....The strongest indication that an ethanol bailout is imminent came last Friday when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa, the nation's biggest ethanol-producing state) said, "I'm very confident that we're going to see an increase in the blend rate." The "blend rate" refers to the federal rule that limits ethanol blends to no more than 10 percent for standard automobiles. Commonly known as "E10," the fuel contains 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent alcohol. The Obama administration bailout, which would come via approval from the EPA, will likely allow gasoline retailers to blend up to 15 percent ethanol into U.S. gasoline supplies.

Three years ago, responding to an increase in corn ethanol subsidies, I wrote: "Can anyone think of any other single policy that has as many simultaneous baneful effects? Are we complete morons?" The answer, apparently, is yes. Read Bryce's whole piece to get the entire grim story.

Ellsberg, Obama, and Iraq

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 6:59 PM EDT

Via Glenn Greenwald, here is Daniel Ellsberg slamming Barack Obama's record in office so far:

Ellsberg: I think Obama is continuing the worst of the Bush administration in terms of civil liberties, violations of the constitution and the wars in the Middle East.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For example?

Ellsberg: Take Obama's explicit pledge in his State of the Union speech to remove "all" United States troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. That's a total lie. I believe that's totally false. I believe he knows that's totally false. It won't be done. I expect that the US will have, indefinitely, a residual force of at least 30,000 US troops in Iraq.

This is crazy. Criticizing Obama's willingness to keep troops in the Middle East is fine. But claiming that he's lied about it? That's pretty much the exact opposite of what's going on. On February 27th of last year, just a month after taking office, Obama gave a major speech at Camp Lejeune and announced that all combat units would withdraw from Iraq by the summer of 2010 but he'd be keeping a "residual force" in Iraq comprising about 50,00 troops. He was crystal clear about this, aides who briefed reporters later were crystal clear about it, and he took plenty of heat for it. It's been a subject of intense controversy ever since. Ellsberg acts as if he's speaking truth to power on a subject the establishment has continually denied, but it ain't so. All he's doing is repeating what the establishment itself has said time and time again.

As for this year's State of the Union speech, what Obama said was this: "We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August....This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home." So yes, he used word "all." But he also made it clear that he was talking about "combat troops," as he always has, and the administration position on the residual force remained the same. There's no skullduggery here.

UPDATE: Sorry, I misread this. Ellsberg is talking about the end of 2011, at which time Obama has indeed promised to withdraw fully from Iraq. Calling this a lie is still pretty far over the top, though, unless we get to the end of 2011 and it turns out that Obama has refused to keep his word. So far, however, withdrawal has happened on exactly the schedule he outlined last year. And nothing in this year's State of the Union speech said anything about 2011.

A Pyrrhic Victory on Climate Change

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 4:39 PM EDT

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's proposal to ban the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases lost in the Senate today, 53-47. That's the good news. Unfortunately, 47 yes votes is the bad news. I don't have the vote breakdown yet, but I assume this means six Democrats voted in favor of Murkowski's resolution. This obviously bodes poorly for a Senate willing to seriously cap greenhouse emissions, and it bodes really really poorly for a Senate willing to cap greenhouse emissions after Democrats lose a bunch of seats in November. I remain extremely discouraged on this front.

UPDATE: Yep, six Dems voted in favor: Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, Pryor, and Rockefeller

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On Caring Less

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 2:32 PM EDT

I know that David Mitchell is just playing around here, but can someone tell me why so many people really do object to the phrase "I could care less"? It seems to me that the meaning here is obvious. If you say:

I couldn't care less

You're saying it straight. You literally mean that you care so little about something that you couldn't care less about it. But if you say:

I could care less

You're saying it sarcastically. As in, "Oh sure, as if I could possibly care less." Right? Try to imagine a world weary teenager's tone of voice here. So both usages make perfect sense depending on how you say it. Anyone disagree?

UPDATE: Sorry, I failed to be as explicit here as I should have been. My fault. My argument here is that "I could care less" began as a sarcastic version of the phrase, and although sometimes it's still used that way, it's also morphed into being used with standard intonation. So you hear it both ways these days. In other words, just ordinary idiomatic language evolution.

Teaching to the Test

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 1:42 PM EDT

Via Tyler Cowen, Scott Carrell and James West have done a thought-provoking little study of student achievement in college-level courses. They use data from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where students are randomly assigned to professors in a wide variety of core courses; syllabi and exams for the courses are identical; exams are graded communally; and students are randomly assigned to professors for both introductory and required follow-on courses. Their conclusion:

Our results indicate that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes. Academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous value added, but positively correlated with follow-on course value-added. Hence, students of less experienced instructors who do not possess a Ph.D. perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course, but perform worse in the follow-on related curriculum.

All the usual caveats apply. This is just one study. It's for college-level instruction. The introductory class is Calculus I and the follow-ons are various math and engineering courses. There's quite a bit of clustering in the middle. And there's always the chance that the researchers failed to control for something important. Still, pretty fascinating! As the chart on the right shows, professors who produced high-scoring students in their introductory courses (shown on the x-axis) also tend to produce students who score poorly in follow-on classes (y-axis). The obvious parallel here is to the results of standardized testing in elementary and high schools:

One potential explanation for our results is that the less-experienced professors may teach more strictly to the regimented curriculum being tested, while the more experienced professors broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material....Another potential mechanism is that students may learn (good or bad) study habits depending on the manner in which their introductory course is taught. For example, introductory professors who “teach to the test” may induce students to exert less study effort in follow-on related courses.

The researchers were only able to do this study properly because of the unusual conditions at the Air Force Academy. Still, it's provocative. One of the longtime problems with various high-stakes testing regimes has been the fact that although they often produce good results in early grades, these results usually wash out by the end of middle school. This study suggests that this problem might actually be built into the system.

On the other hand, it may also do no more than confirm the long-known fact that new teachers tend to be considerably less effective than more experienced teachers regardless of the type of curriculum. More studies, please.

UPDATE: For more, see Jessica Calefati's piece about the attempt by Florida and other states to pay teachers based on student scores on standardized tests. One problem: data on elementary school test performance is hard to judge because, unlike the Air Force Academy, kids aren't assigned randomly to classes.

Prop 16 and Ratepayer Rage

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

I argued yesterday that it was silly to insist on a narrative that credits voter rage for the passage of California's Prop 14, which changes the way primaries are held here. And I stick to that. After all, two years ago California voters approved Proposition 11, which also changed our electoral structure fundamentally by taking redistricting power away from the legislature. Like Prop 14, it passed narrowly. Like Prop 14, it was a follow-on to a previous similar initiative that had failed. Like Prop 14, it had the endorsement of most of the state's big newspapers. And guess what? No one suggested it passed because of voter anger. So why insist that this has to be the reason for Prop 14's passage?

If you're going to make that claim you need some actual evidence. So for that, let's turn instead to Proposition 16, a measure sponsored by PG&E that was billed as a "taxpayer's right to vote" but, in reality, was a cynical play to use the ballot box to prevent its competitors from expanding. PG&E spent nearly $50 million on Prop 16 and its opponents spent nearly nothing, but it went down anyway. Why? How about "ratepayer rage"?

Fed up with big bills, distrustful of new meters that show higher usage and chagrined by power shutoffs when payments are late, PG&E's customers sent a vote of no-confidence to the giant utility this week when they rejected the utility-sponsored Proposition 16.

Voters in counties served by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which spearheaded the measure to deter government-run power providers, rejected the measure by large margins while counties less familiar with the state's largest electric utility supported it.

....Chris Davis, 45, who opposed Proposition 16, said she was still livid about the rolling blackouts a few years back. "PG&E is a force for evil," the San Francisco graduate student said. "I bundle up. I wear three sweaters, two hats and do jumping jacks before I will turn on the heat. I hate them. They are awful. And I'm a Buddhist. I don't usually talk like this."

The map above tells the tale. If you don't actually have to endure PG&E as your electricity supplier, their anti-tax message sounded pretty good. But if you do have to do business with them, you were in no mood to give them any more clout than they already have.

The 5 Million Long-Term Unemployed

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

Annie Lowrey writes today about Cindy Paoletti of Salina, New York, part of the recent surge in the long-term unemployed, a problem that's far, far more pronounced in this recession than it has been in past ones. "Of the 15 million unemployed in America," she reports, "over 7 million have been out of work for more than six months, nearly 5 million for a year and over 1 million for two years — the worst statistics since the government started keeping count in 1948." Despite this, legislation to extend unemployment benefits is stalled in the Senate. Matt Yglesias comments:

It’d probably be more expensive to mount a real jobs program — like a program where you show up somewhere and they give you a job — than to simply keep extending UI, but it’d be better to establish something for folks who’ve been out of a job for over a year where we actually employ them doing something. We should give Paoletti money, and we should also give her something to do. It just can’t be that there’s absolutely nothing of public use that could be done in-or-around Salina, New York.

Pundits like us don't really have an obligation to produce detailed white papers as the price of entry for criticizing public policy. Still, I can't help but feel that a case like this requires something. Sure, there's probably a job somewhere around Salina for Paoletti. But what we'd really need are public jobs for all 5 million of the people who have been unemployed for over a year. I'm just not sure what that would look like, and I'd like to hear at least a remotely plausible scenario for creating quick, useful public jobs on that kind of scale in a sluggish economy before I insist that there must be a way to do it.

It's not as if this is a brand new problem, after all. We've had a vast industry dedicated to finding work for welfare recipients and the unemployed for decades. So we have a pretty good idea of what the shape of the river is. And we haven't found an answer yet. It's possible that throwing a lot more money at it would do the job, but I doubt it. If consumer demand isn't there, it isn't there.

Which of course is the problem. Matt has argued tirelessly for an economic policy that spends less time worrying about nonexistent inflation worries and more time spending federal dollars to boost demand and close the output gap. And that's the thing to argue for. If we're not willing to do that, though, count me as skeptical that the federal government can somehow create public works projects for 5 million people. I'm certainly willing to change my mind if someone out there has done the serious, detailed work to show that it's more plausible than I think, but I haven't really seen that yet.