Kevin Drum

Obama Is Still Trying to Keep Markets Competitive

| Wed Apr. 6, 2016 1:04 AM EDT

Can an activist government do something about huge corporate mergers that reduce competition to dangerously low levels? Why yes!

Pfizer Inc. has decided to kill its planned $150 billion takeover of Allergan PLC, after the Obama administration took aim at a deal that would have moved the biggest drug company in the U.S. to Ireland to lower its taxes, according to people familiar with the matter....The companies are expected to announce the deal’s termination as early as Wednesday morning, after Pfizer’s board voted Tuesday to halt the combination and the New York-based pharmaceutical company then notified Dublin-based Allergan, the people said.

This happened after the Treasury Department unveiled new rules that would have eliminated the tax advantages of the deal. There's also this:

The Justice Department is preparing to file a lawsuit to block a proposed merger between Halliburton Co. and Baker Hughes Inc., the most recent sign that a takeover boom is meeting resistance from U.S. regulators and antitrust enforcers....It would mark the department’s most notable flexing of its enforcement muscles since Comcast Corp. abandoned its planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable Inc. a year ago in the face of opposition by the department and the Federal Communications Commission.

These periodic interventions aren't much, but they demonstrate what can be done even in the absence of new legislation. An administration that wants to keep markets competitive has plenty of arrows in its quiver if it chooses to use them.

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Publication Bias Is Boring. You Should Care About It Anyway.

| Wed Apr. 6, 2016 12:41 AM EDT

You all know about publication bias, don't you? Sure you do. It's the tendency to publish research that has bold, affirmative results and ignore research that concludes there's nothing going on. This can happen two ways. First, it can be the researchers themselves who do it. In some cases that's fine: the data just doesn't amount to anything, so there's nothing to write up. In other cases, it's less fine: the data contradicts previous results, so you decide not to write it up.

The second way it can happen is via journal editors. Generally speaking, they prefer papers with exciting new results. This, of course, makes things even worse for researchers. They're not much interested in writing up negative results in the first place, and they're even less interested if they know there's virtually no chance of getting them published in a good journal.

Why bring this up? Because yesterday Brian Resnick wrote about a truly remarkable case of publication bias. It revolves around research showing that the hormone oxytocin increases trust between humans. At first, multiple lines of research suggested it could. But then Anthony Lane, one of the primary researchers in the field, began getting negative results:

After 2010, fewer and fewer of their lab's experiments yielded data that confirmed the oxytocin could reliably increase levels of trust....The doubts crested in 2014 when Lane and his colleagues couldn't replicate their own envelope study....The lab was able to publish this negative finding, but Lane felt a larger problem was lurking. Labs are judged on the strength of their published work. And Lane's published portfolio on oxytocin just wasn't representative of their work anymore. They still had five papers showing promise for oxytocin, and only one casting doubt.

In a new paper published March in the journal Neuroendocrinology, Lane and his colleagues go through their "file drawer" of studies, and conclude the whole of their work yields an inconclusive result on the power of oxytocin spray to change behavior. They looked at 25 different tests their lab conducted. Only six of the 25 tests yielded significant results. In aggregate, the difference between the oxytocin sniffers in their studies and placebo groups "was not reliably different than zero," the paper found.

When they tried to submit their null findings, they "were rejected time and time again," the paper reports.

So there you go. Not just a boring "no result" study from an unknown researcher. Nor a trivial correction to previous work. This is a well-known researcher evaluating his entire output on a subject and concluding that he's been wrong for years. And yet he couldn't get it published.

Lots of null results don't deserve to be published. But lots of them do: otherwise readers are left with an impression that the evidence is far more positive than it really is. That's the case here: the overall impression Lane and others had left is that oxytocin works. It increases trust levels. Without a corrective, that's what people would go on believing.

Everyone knows about this problem. Everyone agrees—in theory—that it needs to be addressed. And yet nothing ever seems to happen. Science deserves better.

Quiz of the Day: Match the Questions With Bernie's Answers

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 9:25 PM EDT

How closely have you been following the Democratic presidential campaign? Can you match up the topics on the left with the answers Bernie Sanders gave to the Daily News editorial board on the right?

  1. Whether Wall Street executives could be prosecuted over their actions during the financial crisis.
  2. How far he wants Israel to pull back its illegal settlements.
  3. What the Supreme Court's recent decision on Metropolitan Life means.
  4. How Israel should have handled its 2014 conflict in Gaza.
  5. President Obama's policy of giving the military authority over drone attacks.
  6. How he would handle the detention and interrogation of an ISIS commander.
  7. The Palestinian leadership's decision to litigate Israeli war crimes in the International Criminal Court.
  8. What big banks would look like after he's broken them up.
  1. I don’t know the answer to that.
  2. Do I have them in front of me, now, legal statutes? No, I don’t.
  3. I'm not running JP Morgan Chase or Citibank.
  4. I don’t quite think I’m qualified to make decisions.
  5. It’s something I have not studied, honestly.
  6. Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?
  7. You’re asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer.
  8. Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.

Answer key: 1-B, 2-G, 3-E, 4-D, 5-A, 6-H, 7-F, 8-C

White Teachers Think Pretty Poorly of Their Black Students

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 2:46 PM EDT

Bob Somerby draws my attention to a new study about the effect of race on teacher evaluations of students. The authors took advantage of a large dataset that included evaluations of students from two teachers each. They then compared the teacher evaluations of each student based on differences in the teachers' races.

The chart on the right tells the story. White students didn't suffer from having a teacher of another race. Expectations of dropping out were the same and expectations of getting a college degree were actually higher. Hispanic students were modestly affected. Teachers of other races thought Hispanic students had a slightly higher chance of dropping out and the same chance of completing college.

But black students were enormously affected. Compared to black teachers, teachers of other races thought their black students had a far higher chance of dropping out and a far lower chance of completing college. Since the baseline expectation of dropping out was 31 percent for black students, a change of 12 percentage points represents a whopping 39 percent increase. Likewise, the baseline expectation of a college degree was 37 percent for black students, so a change of 9 percentage points represents 24 percent decrease.

The authors conclude with this:

The general finding of systematic biases in teachers’ expectations for student attainment indicates that the topic of teacher expectations is ripe for future research. Particularly policy relevant areas for future inquiry include how teachers form expectations, what types of interventions can eliminate biases from teacher expectations, and how teacher expectations affect the long-run student outcomes of ultimate import. To the extent that teacher expectations affect student outcomes, the results presented in the current study provide additional support for the hiring of a more diverse and representative teaching force, as nonwhite teachers are underrepresented in U.S. public schools.

Let's ask all our presidential candidate what, if anything, they think we should do about this.

Obamacare Notches Another Win. Are You Tired of Winning Yet?

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 12:08 PM EDT

I've mentioned before that one of the reasons Obamacare signup rates are below projections is because employer coverage is above projections. Back in 2010, analysts assumed that employers would steadily drop health coverage and simply pay their employees to buy insurance on the exchanges. But that hasn't happened—and that's a good thing.

Now the New York Times has joined the party, so maybe everyone else will start to get this too:

The surprise turnaround adds to an emerging consensus about the contentious health law: It has not upturned the core of the country’s health insurance system, even while insuring millions of low-income people.

....About 155 million Americans have employer-based health insurance coverage in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office last month. The number will fall to 152 million people in 2019, the C.B.O. estimates, but will remain stable through 2026. Slightly more than half of people under 65 will be enrolled in employment-based coverage.

Employers seem to be staying the course even more strongly than they did before the law. The percentage of adults under 65 with employer-based insurance held firm for the last five years after steadily declining since 1999, according to an analysis of federal data released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which closely tracks the health insurance market.

The CDC has been tracking health coverage for years, and their numbers show that private coverage (not including exchanges) has gone up since Obamacare went live. These numbers include both employer coverage and private coverage purchased off-exchange, but employer coverage is by far the biggest component and there's no special reason to think that off-exchange individual coverage has increased much. This provides a very strong indication that the employer market has stayed healthy, and the CBO report confirms this.

If you want to know how Obamacare is doing, don't look at Obamacare enrollments compared to early projections. Instead, look at the total uninsured rate compared to early projections. That's the only number that provides a comprehensive look at all forms of health insurance and how they've done compared to predictions. When you do that, you'll find that Obamacare is actually doing a little better than anyone thought it would.

To paraphrase a prominent politician, I wonder if Obamacare's critics are tired of losing all the time? If so, come on over to the side of light and goodness. You'll win so much you'll get tired of winning.

Donald Trump Apparently Wants a Cold War With Mexico

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 10:42 AM EDT

Donald Trump has finally explained how he would force Mexico to pay for a border wall, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. Basically, the idea is to threaten Mexico with financial ruin unless they pay up:

Trump would also threaten to raise tariffs, cancel visas, and raise visa fees. But if Mexico writes us a big check, all the threats go away and we can be friends again.

Trump didn't threaten to send troops over the border, but otherwise this is a very Roman Empire approach to foreign affairs. In that sense, it's reminiscent of his threat to pull out troops from other countries unless they pony up big bags of tribute to pay for protection. Trump really does believe that the biggest, richest, most militarily dominant country in the history of the world is just a poor little waif being taken advantage of by everyone else.

Needless to say, anyone with a handful of working brain cells knows that Mexico would never pay this extortion money. Their voters wouldn't put up with it any more than ours would. If Trump actually went through with this—which is questionable since it would end up in court on day 2—he'd create a permanent enemy on our Southern border. Just what we need. And Mexico would probably retaliate by encouraging even greater illegal immigration into the US.

What a fuckwit. I really don't know what we did to deserve this.

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Here Are the Final Wisconsin Poll Results for the Republican Primary

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 1:08 AM EDT

For everyone who still cares, here's the final Pollster aggregate for the Wisconsin Republican primary on Tuesday. Cruz is still slightly ahead, but Trump is gaining ground. It could be a nailbiter.

Oh yeah, and the Democrats have a primary too. It's also neck and neck, with Bernie slightly ahead. Another nailbiter in America's Dairyland!

TSA Sets New Coding Standard: $47,000 Per Hour for iPad Apps

| Tue Apr. 5, 2016 12:13 AM EDT

Sometime in the dim past, the TSA needed a way to randomly assign passengers to the pre-check boarding line. The solution was an iPad app that randomly points left or right when an agent taps the screen. This app, which Kevin Burke says "a beginner could build in a day," was coded by IBM and cost the taxpayers a cool $47,000.

That seems like a lot. But could it really be coded in a day? Or is that just snark? Well, in case you're curious, here's the program:

I left out a bit of routine housekeeping stuff, and I didn't bother writing the functions to display the arrows—which probably wouldn't be more than a few lines each. That said, Burke is being generous. It shouldn't take more than an hour or so to write.

I've never written an iPad app, but I would have learned from scratch if I knew I could make 47 large out of the deal. I would have expensed the Idiot's Guide to iPad Programming, though, so call it $47,039.95. The government sure is weird sometimes.

Is There an Untapped Market for Democratic Anger?

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 7:06 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias draws my attention to a paper written after the 2014 elections that looks at the number of ideologically based primary challenges in House elections since 1970. It turns out that there have always been plenty of primary challenges, but most of them are mundane affairs based on local issues. Until recently, very few have been about insufficient liberal or conservative purity. Here's the nut of it:

The majority of congressional primary challenges are motivated by idiosyncratic failings of the incumbent — factors such as scandals, the incumbent’s age, or the incumbent’s alleged incompetence. Ideological challenges...constitute an average of just under 14 percent of primary challenges.

....The number of ideological challenges, however, has increased steadily over the past five election cycles, and was at an historic high in 2014. This is entirely due to challenges within the Republican Party; not a single Democratic primary challenger based his or her campaign on the claim that the incumbent was insufficiently liberal....This is noteworthy not only for what it says about conflict within the Republican Party, but for what it says about the lack of conflict among Democrats.

Even in the post-Watergate elections, Democrats never mounted more than a handful of ideological primary challenges. The Gingrich revolution in the mid-90s was similar on the Republican side. It's only starting in 2010—the Obama era—that ideological primary challenges suddenly skyrocketed in the Republican Party.

Yglesias writes that "the Bernie Sanders campaign appears to suggest the existence of substantial untapped demand for left-wing ideological primary challenges in the Democratic Party." Maybe. More likely, given the 40-year history of neither party mounting many ideological primary challenges, something very unusual happened among conservatives in 2010. As much as they hated Bill Clinton, he never prompted a tidal wave of right-wing challenges to Republican incumbents. But something about Obama was different. Suddenly an awful lot of Republicans decided that their party needed to get a lot more conservative.

What was it about Obama that was so different? I think we can all take a guess. But whatever the answer, I've seen no indication of anything similar happening among Democrats. And Bernie's millennial supporters, as usual, show very little interest in any election less important than the presidency. So my money is on Democrats never having more than a few ideological challenges per election cycle. Bernie is Bernie, not a harbinger of deep discontent among liberals.

But I can be proven wrong pretty easily. All it takes is a dozen or two primary challenges. Let's see 'em.

Hillary Clinton Wrecks Pro-Choice Movement

| Mon Apr. 4, 2016 2:10 PM EDT

Apparently Hillary Clinton has single-handedly dealt the pro-choice movement a death blow:

Asked on Meet the Press by Chuck Todd whether “an unborn child ha[s] constitutional rights,” Clinton admitted that under current law, “the unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.”

The pro-choice movement takes extreme care to avoid calling an unborn child a person — preferring the term “fetus” in order to preserve the argument that abortion involves the well-being of only one person, not two....Words matter deeply to the security of an increasingly weakening pro-choice movement. The cracks in their armor have become more clear with scientific advances and the ability to lower the age of infant viability, so when a powerful voice for their cause accidentally reveals the truth — they take a hit.

....Hillary Clinton will never admit that these unborn babies deserve any rights, but she will now have to live with the fact she’s admitted that killing a “person” should be perfectly legal.

I guess that's that. Thanks a lot, Hillary. Now we'll have to come up with some entirely new subterfuge to justify our baffling hatred of blastocysts, embryos, and fetuses.

Sigh. Do these folks really think that stuff like this blows the lid off the pro-choice movement? Seriously?