Kevin Drum

Healthcare Day

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:10 PM EST

HEALTHCARE DAY....This is sort of anticlimactic, but Barack Obama officially announced today that Tom Daschle would be both his nominee to head up Health and Human Services and his healthcare czar. Ezra Klein reports that Obama was quite clear about pushing through reform quickly:

Key words: "This year." Obviously, he doesn't mean in 2008. But that does suggest a year one commitment, which syncs with Obama's previous statement that he'd like to send a bill to Congress by March or April. Given the financial emergency, that might prove optimistic. But Obama made a point during the presser of arguing that the two are connected. "This has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program," he said "This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is the emergency!"

Jon Cohn agrees:

In response to the final question, the only one on health care, he said "the time is now to solve this problem. I met too many families in this campaing, even before the economic downturn, who were desperate." He then mentioned the role health care costs played in personal bankruptcies and employer struggles, and reiterated that "this has to be intimiately woven into our economic recovery program. It's not something we can put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency. We want to make sure the strategy reflects that truth."

So: good news. The only cautionary note I'd add is that it doesn't sound like Obama has made any commitments yet about what kind of reform he plans to focus on right out of the gate. If it's the full-blown plan he proposed during the campaign, that's great. If it's expansion of SCHIP and a push to automate medical records — well, that's good stuff too, but not exactly the change we've been waiting for. I'm pretty optimistic that he's talking about the former, but obviously we'll have to wait and see.

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The Rest of the World

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 11:57 AM EST

THE REST OF THE WORLD....Marc Ambinder says that Barack Obama's economics team is really, really worried about a genuine collapse of the global economy. But he wonders if they're worried enough about the collapse of individual countries:

To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt....The question: what's the administration's policy in this area? Which countries can we afford to let fail? Which unstable states would concern us the most? Is there something the U.S. can do, in advance, should do, in advance, to forestall the collapse of other economies?

Clean Air

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:58 AM EST

CLEAN AIR....Here's some unexpected good news. The Bush administration has decided to back down on its last-minute efforts to loosen a pair of environmental regulations:

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday abandoned its push to revise two air-pollution rules in ways that environmentalists had long opposed, abruptly dropping measures that the Bush administration had spent years preparing.

....The proposal on parks would have changed the rules for new plants being built nearby....Clean-air advocates had protested that this might allow parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah — where the famous mountaintop views are already obscured by smog and haze — to become even dirtier on certain days.

....The other rule dealt with the agency's New Source Review process, which dictates when existing power plants must implement additional pollution-control measures....John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said the rule would have allowed plants to operate for longer hours and produce more overall pollution.

"I am stunned. I've been fighting these dirty rules for years," Walke said. "And within the span of an hour," he said, both were suddenly moot.

It's not clear what prompted this about face. But it's welcome news regardless.

And Now For Something Completely Different

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 11:19 PM EST

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT....Yesterday I posted a chart that plotted the frequency of prayer vs. partisan affiliation. It came from Razib Khan, who created it using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. Today, although he was happy that a few blogs linked to it, he lamented that "alas, the practice of looking to the GSS to test some intuition or CW hasn't spread like wildfire."

Well. That's like catnip around here. I myself have never done this for a simple reason: I didn't know I could. But it turns out that some fine folks at Berkeley have built a simple web interface for the GSS and several other big databases (here), and anyone who feels like poking around can do so. So I did.

The interface lists all the questions that the GSS asks and allows you to plot variables against each other to see what pops out. I did that for a while, generating nothing of any value, until I finally discovered something of vital importance: one of the questions on the 2006 GSS was, "How many people named Kevin are you acquainted with?" And there was even a followup question: "How many of those people named Kevin do you trust?"

I had to find out. Now, I could have plotted this against anything I wanted — age, sex, religious attendance, zodiac sign (really) — but this is a political blog, so I plotted it against party affiliation. The results are on the right, and they're a little disturbing. Eyeballing the numbers, people appear to know an average of two Kevins each, but they only trust about half a Kevin each. So on average, people only trust about 25% of all the Kevins they know.

That's a little deflating, isn't it? But interesting! If you're named Kevin, that is. You can check out results for your own name, but only if your name is Kevin, Karen, Shawn, Brenda, Keith, Rachel, Mark, Linda, Jose, or Maria. Your guess is as good as mine about why they chose those ten.

You can also do other stuff, of course, and that includes mining the data and abusing the results to produce results you find pleasing. And then blogging about it. You can probably expect some of that in the future. Until then, have fun.

Multiple Choice Redux

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 7:56 PM EST

MULTIPLE CHOICE REDUX....So what's the dope on Europeans and multiple choice tests? First up, my editor emailed this morning to weigh in:

I went to school in Germany and Italy, and I never had to break out a No. 2 pencil to fill in little circles until I took the GRE to come to the US. It may have changed a little, but by and large European education systems don't use them — lots of tests, and lots of questions, but generally of the fill-in-the-blank or provide-the-answer-here variety.

So: it sounds like European testing is more rigorous than in the U.S. But hold on. Robert Waldmann, who provoked the question in the first place, adds this:

The tradition in Italy is that most exams are oral (I am not kidding). Also students seem to have been taught to recite the 5 pages from the textbook which are most related to the question they are asked.

On US vs Italian high schools, obviously Italian high schools are more rigorous (I mean US high school is very exceptional as is the fact that most people in the US completed high school way back in the 20s). However, there was a comment by Italian students who were in the US on an exchange program that with multiple choice tests one has to think. Compared to learning by rote and reciting that is really true.

Hmmm. I think we need better agreement on just what "rigorous" means. If the Italian alternative to multiple choice is parroting back sections of a textbook, multiple choice starts to look pretty good.

In any case, there were lots of good comments to my original post from people who went to school in Europe, and the general consensus is that multiple choice tests are virtually unknown there. So here's another question: aside from standardized testing (i.e., NCLB-related stuff) how common are multiple choice tests in the United States these days? My schooling is now 30 or 40 years in the past, but my recollection is that there was very, very little of it in my extremely average suburban high school. It wasn't unknown, mind you, and I remember one of my English teachers saying that he liked to include at least a short MC section on his tests because you can't BS your way through it no matter how talented you are at that kind of thing, the way some people can with essay tests. But that was mostly the exception, not the rule. And yes, my math teachers all insisted that we show our work. (Much to my and my classmates' abiding dismay.)

Anyway, as long as we're on the subject, here's yet another tidbit. Via email and personal discussions, the one topic that seems to come up almost universally with teachers at the university level is writing. It's not so much that their kids are bad at math or reading or specific areas of knowledge (though there's always some of that, of course), but that they can't write. And they are convinced that this is getting worse, and that it's not just that they have over-rosy memories of students in the past. Anyone care to weigh in on this? Do high schools not require very much writing these days? Or what?

Jindal Bows Out

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 4:23 PM EST

JINDAL BOWS OUT....Is Louisiana governor and GOP superstar Bobby Jindal planning to run for president in 2012?

At a news conference Wednesday with Bob McDonnell, Virginia's 2009 Republican candidate for governor, Jindal was asked if he was interested in being president, AP reports.

His answer: "No."

Jindal said he's planning to run for reelection in 2011, something that would make pivoting to a national campaign logistically and politically tricky.

I'd say this confirms that Jindal isn't an idiot. Sure, it's possible that Barack Obama is going to crash and burn and turn 2012 into a Republican year. But what are the odds? Far more likely is that Obama is a shoo-in for a second term, and whoever runs against him will suffer the same fate as George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. The GOP will find someone to embark on this suicide run, but it will have to be someone both dumber and with a lot more jejune self-regard than Jindal. Palin 2012!

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The 2008 Zeitgeist

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 2:17 PM EST

THE 2008 ZEITGEIST....According to Google, here are the search terms that increased the most since 2007. Pretty weird group, isn't it?

Obama and Palin? No surprise there. David Cook? He's the latest American Idol winner, so no surprise there either.

Beijing 2008, Facebook, and iPhone? I wouldn't have guessed them, but OK. Makes sense.

But Fox News? YouTube? Those seem like they would have been massively popular well before 2008. What happened?

And ATT? Huh? I assume this is a search for AT&T, the telecommunications giant. Why on earth did they suddenly get trainloads of Google fu?

And finally, there's Surf The Channel, clearly a Zeitgeist choice designed solely to make me feel old. I've never heard of it. Googling it, I find that it's a "website for TV enthusiasts. We go out into the internet, find the shows we love on other sites and then list them here on our paqes." And it is the tenth fastest growing Google search in the United States. We are all doomed.

Candidate #5

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 12:07 PM EST

CANDIDATE #5....Brian Ross reports the latest on Blago:

Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) is the anonymous "Senate Candidate #5" whose emissaries Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich reportedly claimed offered up to a million dollars to name him to the U.S. Senate, federal law enforcement sources tell ABC News.

An awful lot rides on just who the "emissaries" were and whether anyone has any evidence that they were acting with Jackson's knowledge. Needless to say, Jackson denies any involvement.

Bad Pundits

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 11:30 AM EST

BAD PUNDITS....Foreign Policy rounds up the top ten worst predictions of 2008 today. Bill Kristol tops the list, and while I can't argue with that in a cosmic, karmic kind of sense, I have to confess that predicting Hillary Clinton would beat Barack Obama hardly qualifies as uniquely idiotic. Surely he's said something dumber than that recently?

Personally, I would have given the #1 spot to Don Luskin, who claimed, on the day before Bear Stearns collapsed, that it was ridiculous to say we were in a recession. That's an epic fail.

However, if I were Walter Wagner I'd sue for crystal ball malpractice. He's the guy who predicted that the Large Hadron Collider would destroy the earth, and FP says, "The LHC was turned on in September, and it appears that we are still here." But the truth is that the LHC never reached its full operational capacity before a malfunction shut it down. It might yet suck the planet into a black hole, and won't the FP editors have egg on their faces if that happens.

Bailing Out Detroit

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 12:55 AM EST

BAILING OUT DETROIT....David Leonhardt uses this graphic in the New York Times today to illustrate the labor costs of the Big Three auto makers vs. the Japanese companies who manufacture cars in nonunion plants. As he says, the $70+ per hour figure that gets tossed around so often is badly misleading: a big chunk of that figure comes from legacy retiree costs, and retiree costs are high not because retiree benefits are wildly stupendous, but simply because the Big Three are old companies and therefore have a lot of retirees. But even so:

[Defenders of the Big Three] are not right to suggest, as many have, that Detroit has solved its wage problem. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler workers make significantly more than their counterparts at Toyota, Honda and Nissan plants in this country. Last year's concessions by the United Automobile Workers, which mostly apply to new workers, will not change that anytime soon.

He's right. Even under the new contracts signed last year with the UAW, it will take years for Detroit's costs to come down to Japanese levels. But worker paychecks aren't Detroit's primary problem anyway:

Imagine that a Congressional bailout effectively pays for $10 an hour of the retiree benefits. That's roughly the gap between the Big Three's retiree costs and those of the Japanese-owned plants in this country. Imagine, also, that the U.A.W. agrees to reduce pay and benefits for current workers to $45 an hour — the same as at Honda and Toyota.

Do you know how much that would reduce the cost of producing a Big Three vehicle? Only about $800.

That's because labor costs, for all the attention they have been receiving, make up only about 10 percent of the cost of making a vehicle. An extra $800 per vehicle would certainly help Detroit, but the Big Three already often sell their cars for about $2,500 less than equivalent cars from Japanese companies, analysts at the International Motor Vehicle Program say. Even so, many Americans no longer want to own the cars being made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

....It's a sad story, in many ways. But it can't really be undone at this point. If we had wanted to preserve the Big Three, we would have bought more of their cars.

Obviously I have mixed feelings about all this. No one wants to see hundreds of thousands of auto workers collecting unemployment, especially now, but at the same time it just doesn't make sense to keep GM and Chrysler alive as zombie companies for the next couple of years. And the idea of a "car czar" doesn't appeal much either. It's only systemic restructuring that's going to make a difference here, and the deal we've struck so far doesn't seem to really accomplish that. Like so many other things these days, there aren't any good solutions here. Just bad and slightly less bad.