Kevin Drum

Midget Nerd? Seriously?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 12:11 PM EST

I guess you don't need me to tell you about Bush 41's opinion of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. Poor Jon Meacham spent years writing a biography of Bush, and all anyone cares about is a few quotes calling people "iron-asses," an epithet Bush applied to Rumsfeld and, apparently, the entire Cheney family. Especially Lynne.

But did Bush really call Michael Dukakis "midget nerd"? What is this, junior high school?

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Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 9:00 AM EST

Last night I was checking my calendar and realized that I have jury duty today. Exciting! So probably no blogging. Unless I end up waiting around all day and never getting called, in which case maybe I'll do some blogging on my tablet. We'll see.

Is Ben Carson a Liar? Or Does He Just Not Care?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 10:18 PM EST

Here is Ben Carson, wandering off topic when the Miami Herald asks him about abuses of our Cuba policy:

"I think the way to fix that is not so much to abolish the act, but dealing with the specific area where the abuse is," Carson said, noting that Medicare and Medicaid fraud is "huge — half a trillion dollars."

"We definitely need to focus on that," he said.

Well, hell, why not say it's a hundred trillion dollars? Or a gazillion? I mean, if you're just going to make stuff up, why not go whole hog?

For the record, total Medicare and Medicaid spending last year—state, federal, everything—was $980 billion. So Carson is suggesting that literally half of all spending on these programs is fraudulent.

So where did Carson come up with this figure? Beats me. There are a few possibilities:

  • It comes from some kind of kooky right-wing conspiracy theory that circulates in newsletters and email lists that the rest of us never see.
  • Carson read somewhere that Medicare fraud totaled $60 billion out of half a trillion dollars, and the only parts that stuck in his brain were "fraud" and "half a trillion dollars."
  • He just made it up.

This stuff is weird. Carson didn't have to say anything about Medicare fraud. The question was about Cuba policy. He wanted to mention it. Fine. He could have just said that Medicare fraud was a huge problem. Sorry: not good enough. He wanted to toss out a scary number, but he couldn't be bothered to know what it actually was—or even know enough about Medicare and Medicaid spending to realize that half a trillion dollars couldn't possibly be right. He just doesn't care. What kind of person running for president just doesn't care?

POSTSCRIPT: Couldn't Carson have just made a mistake? Sure. But here's the thing: some mistakes are so big they give away the fact that you're entirely ignorant of the subject at hand. If I told you that Babe Ruth hit 800 home runs in his career, it might just be a brain fart. But if I told you he hit 5,000 home runs, it's a giveaway that I'm faking. I don't know the first thing about baseball.

That's what Carson did here. He's smart and good with numbers, so if he knew even the basics of Medicare and Medicaid he'd also know intuitively that half a trillion dollars couldn't be right. But he didn't. He's running for president, and hasn't bothered to learn even the kindergarten basics about two programs that make up nearly a third of the federal budget.

How Honest Is Your Favorite Candidate?

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 8:11 PM EST

I was browsing through my Twitter feed a few minutes ago and a string of tweets inspired me to do a bit of original research about the honesty of our presidential candidates. I think we all have a gut feel for who's fairly honest and who's not, but I figured there might be a more rigorous way to measure this.

So I hopped over to PolitiFact. Not because they're an infallible source of fact checking, but because they're convenient and probably as good as anyone else. Then I looked up all the candidates. I gave them 5 points for each statement judged True, 4 for each statement judged Mostly True, etc., all the way to zero points for each statement judged Pants On Fire. Then I averaged the scores. Here are the results:

I have a few special awards to hand out, as well as a couple of comments:

  • Cheers to Bernie Sanders, the only candidate with not a single Pants On Fire rating.
  • Jeers to Donald Trump, who failed to earn a single True rating.
  • Double jeers to Ben Carson, who remarkably failed to get a single True rating or a single Mostly True rating.
  • The average Democratic rating is 3.34. The average Republican rating is 2.26.
  • Among Republicans, honesty is the exact inverse of popularity. Jeb Bush is the most honest, and he's got the lowest poll numbers among the serious candidates. Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the least honest by quite a bit, and they're also leading the field by quite a bit. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are in the middle on both honesty and popularity.

I especially draw your attention to the last bullet. It's eerie. It's almost as if the Republican electorate wants to be lied to, and the more you lie, the more they like you. I'll hold off on guessing precisely what this means, but it might explain a lot about this year's GOP primary race.

The Great Mystery of Commute Time and Income Mobility

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 7:05 PM EST

Here's something I ran across accidentally today. In a working paper released a few months ago, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren try to estimate the effect on low-income children of moving to better neighborhoods. In particular, which traits correspond to higher incomes 20 years later?

All the usual suspects have high correlations: segregation, social capital, crime, income inequality, population density, etc. But the very highest correlation—by quite a bit—is for commuting time. Moving to a neighborhood where most people commute less than 15 minutes has a big impact:

Twenty years of exposure to a [commuting zone] with a 1 standard deviation higher fraction of people with commute times less than 15 minutes increases a child's income by [7%]....These correlations with commute times are unlikely the direct effect of being closer to jobs....It is likely some characteristic of places correlated with commute times that drives the underlying pattern.

In other words, this doesn't mean that if mom or dad gets a job closer to home, junior will enjoy a higher income when he grows up. It means that if the family moves to a neighborhood that's close to where its residents work, junior's income will benefit.

This seems a little unlikely, though it's not impossible to imagine that neighborhoods where parents are home more of the time have a beneficial effect on kids. Still, the authors are most likely right: commute time is probably standing in for something else. Perhaps neighborhoods that are close to lots of jobs have certain characteristics that are good for kids, and short commutes are just an accidental bonus.

Either way, this sure seems interesting enough to follow up on. Is it really commute time that matters? If not, what is it a proxy for?

NOTE: The chart shows the effect on boys whose parents have incomes in the bottom quarter. The effect is pretty much the same for girls.

Conservatives Won Big on Tuesday....In the South

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 3:18 PM EST

The Washington Post's headline today is a brutal one for liberals: "From coast to coast, conservatives score huge victories in off-year elections."

But that's not really right. Conservatives did win big victories in Virginia, Kentucky, and Houston. But Ohio's marijuana initiative most likely went down because it was too raw a giveaway to a bunch of rich donors, and San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarim was plagued by scandals that had nothing to do with his support for sanctuary cities. (The winner, Vicki Hennessy, was endorsed by SF mayor Ed Lee. She's hardly a conservative insurgent.)

Elsewhere, liberals won public financing initiatives in Seattle and Maine. Pennsylvania elected three Democrats to the state Supreme Court. Movement conservatives lost big in two of Colorado's largest school districts.

I don't want to go all Pollyanna on you, but the basic result of yesterday's elections is that conservatives won big in the South, while liberals did OK everywhere else. Losing Kentucky was a kick in the gut, but I can't work up a lot of surprise when Democrats lose ground below the Mason-Dixon line. It's unfortunate, but it's hardly big news.

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There's No Secret to Ben Carson's Success

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 2:03 PM EST

What accounts for Ben Carson's popularity? It's not really that hard, says Ed Kilgore:

Less obvious — and finally being recognized by political reporters spending time in Iowa — is that Carson is a familiar, beloved figure to conservative evangelicals, who have been reading his books for years.

Another that Carson is a devoted believer in a number of surprisingly resonant right-wing conspiracy theories, which he articulates via dog whistles that excite fellow devotees (particularly fans of Glenn Beck, who shares much of Carson’s world-view) without alarming regular GOP voters or alerting the MSM.

Yes indeedy. Carson has written eleven books, six of them in just the past two years, and evangelicals eat them up. Just like they eat up his devotion to hardy right-wing conspiracy theories. And on the political front, Carson knows exactly what turns evangelicals on. Here's "Ben on the Issues":

  • Protecting Innocent Life
  • Balanced Budget Amendment
  • Education ("Any attempt by faceless federal bureaucrats to take over our local schools must be defeated.")
  • Keep Gitmo Open
  • Health Care: ObamaCare is a Looming Disaster.
  • Keep Faith in Our Society
  • Russia and Lessons Learned
  • Protect the Second Amendment
  • Stand By Israel, Our Bulwark Middle East Ally
  • The American People Deserve a Better Tax Code

That's about as good a look at the evangelical id as you're likely to get. And lest you think that Ben actually has something to say about these issues, he doesn't. Here, for example, is his complete and unabridged policy statement on taxes:

The current tax code now exceeds 74,000 pages in length. That is an abomination.

It is too long, too complex, too burdensome, and too riddled with tax shelters and loopholes that benefit only a few at the direct expense of the many.

We need wholesale tax reform.

And, we won’t get that from career politicians in Washington. They’re too deeply vested in the current system to deliver the kind of bold, fresh, new reforms that the American people are demanding.

We need a fairer, simpler, and more equitable tax system. Our tax form should be able to be completed in less than 15 minutes. This will enable us to end the IRS as we know it.

Basically, this says that Ben Carson hates the IRS and hates taxes. And that's enough. Very few people, liberal or conservative, actually care much about policy statements. They care about voting for a candidate who thinks like them. Carson has made it crystal clear that he thinks like a conservative evangelical, and that's what they like about him. Just like a different set of pissed off voters likes Donald Trump. Style and tone are irrelevant, and there's no mystery about why conservative voters are attracted to both a blustery loudmouth and a sleepy conciliator. Both Trump and Carson have clearly staked out who they are and how they think. That's why they're doing well so far.

School Life Is Better If You Can Dump the Troublemakers

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 12:52 PM EST

Charter schools tend to suspend, expel, and force out more students than public schools. Is this the secret to their high test scores? Libby Nelson argues, correctly I think, that it's not. Not directly anyway. Good studies have controlled for various factors like this, and charters still look pretty successful.

But there's an indirect effect of this stuff that probably is important. Nelson writes about Eva Moskowitz, founder of New York City's Success Academy, which was recently caught up in controversy over one of its schools maintaining a "got to go" list:

Some charter school leaders — including Moskowitz — argue that tight discipline is key to their success, not by selecting out low-performing students but by creating an environment in which most students can thrive....But if one secret to Success Academy's high scores is its discipline policy, Moskowitz is acknowledging that she has an advantage traditional public schools don't.

Charter schools can expel students, or suspend them so frequently that their parents decide to send them elsewhere, because district schools exist as a backstop.

....If your educational advantage comes, in part, from well-disciplined classrooms, and the way you keep those classrooms in order is by frequently suspending disruptive students, it makes it harder to suggest district schools would be more successful if they followed charter schools' lead on everything. It's much more difficult to create a "got to go" list if students have nowhere else to go.

Talk to any teacher and you're likely to hear a similar story: if they could get rid of just two or three of the most disruptive kids in their classroom, life would be good and all the other kids would benefit. But of course, they can't do it. Public schools can discipline kids, but they're limited in how much and how often. And they can't expel kids at all unless there's somewhere for them to go. Generally speaking, they're stuck with their troublemakers.

This is not an easy issue to tackle. Charter parents argue that it's unfair for an entire class to suffer because the teacher spends all his time trying to tame a couple of hellions. But these are kids. It's also unfair to doom them to an "alternative" school just because they haven't grown up yet. There's no simple answer. But when it comes to charter school success, I suspect this really is a factor, and it's one that, by definition, can't be replicated everywhere.

It's also nearly impossible to measure, which means it will never show up in studies of charters vs. public schools. But just because it can't be measured doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

White Americans Without a College Degree Are Seriously Depressed These Days

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 11:50 AM EST

A new paper by Angus Deaton and Anne Case has gotten a lot of attention for showing that mortality among middle-aged whites has increased over the past two decades in the United States, driven primarily by an increase in suicides, alcohol abuse, and drug overdoses. Everywhere else it's continued to go down. The chart on the right tells the story. I've helpfully annotated it to suggest that perhaps the crisis is over for the time being.

But the paper is being misreported. It's not just middle-aged whites. It's all whites. The chart below tells the real story: every age group from 30 to 65 has shown a steep increase in mortality. So why focus just on middle-aged whites? "The midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality." In other words, the midlife group makes for a more dramatic chart. But every age group has shown a similar trend.

The increase is dominated by whites with a high-school education or less. They're reporting more pain, taking more opioid painkillers, abusing alcohol more, and killing themselves more. Why? So far, we don't really know.

UPDATE: The chart below was originally titled "White Male Mortality by Age Group." In fact, it applies to all whites, both men and women. I've corrected the title.

California Bullet Train Cost Goes Up Yet Again

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 11:00 AM EST

Here's the latest HSR news from California:

The California high-speed rail authority bowed to pressure from California legislators and members of Congress late Tuesday and released a copy of a 2013 report showing a large estimated increase in the cost of building the initial segment of the bullet train project.

The report, disclosed by the Times in a story Oct. 25, said Parsons Brinckerhoff had briefed state officials in October 2013 that the projected cost of the first phase of the bullet train system had risen 31%. The state did not use the increase, however, in its 2014 business plan four months later.

So that's a 31 percent increase over the course of about two years. But no worries. This new estimate is "preliminary, still in development and subject to review clarification and refinement." In other words, it might go up even more.