Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

Obamacare Co-Op Closures: A Headache, Not a Catastrophe

| Wed Nov. 4, 2015 12:04 AM EST

Six years ago the Obama administration backed away from offering a public option in Obamacare. In its place, we got nonprofit co-ops. Paul Krugman was not impressed:

Let’s be clear: the supposed alternative, nonprofit co-ops, is a sham. That’s not just my opinion; it’s what the market says: stocks of health insurance companies soared on news that the Gang of Six senators trying to negotiate a bipartisan approach to health reform were dropping the public plan. Clearly, investors believe that co-ops would offer little real competition to private insurers.

Well, both Krugman and the market were right: co-ops never signed up all that many patients, and now they're failing. By next year there could well be none left.

This has led to a round of breathless news reports. The failures have "handed Republicans a new weapon in their campaign against the health law." Patients are "scrambling" to find new coverage. The closures have left behind a trail of "human wreckage."

Fair enough, I suppose. Co-ops probably were never a good idea, and their bankruptcies really are causing a lot of grief for the people who had signed up with them. Still, in the midst of all this, it's worth pointing out what we're talking about:

  • Roughly 500,000 co-op customers will have to switch insurance plans.
  • That's out of 30 million people who already switch insurance plans each year.1
  • And because of Obamacare, co-op customers can shop for a new plan pretty easily.

It's not unfair to make political hay out of this, especially if you thought co-ops were a bad idea to begin with. But the bottom line is that instead of 30 million people switching plans, about 30.5 million will switch plans next year—and they'll be able to do it more easily than they could in the past. It's a headache, but hardly a catastrophe.

1Mostly against their will. About 68 percent are forced to switch because they changed jobs or their employer decided to change carriers. Another 16 percent switched because their plan was too expensive. Less than 10 percent switched because their new plan offered better service.

Sarcasm Turns Out to Be Great Creativity Tool. You're Welcome.

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 8:48 PM EST

A new paper suggests that sarcasm is underrated:

Studies 1 and 2 found that both sarcasm expressers and recipients reported more conflict but also demonstrated enhanced creativity following a simulated sarcastic conversation or after recalling a sarcastic exchange.

Um, yeah. I remember that part. It's why my boss once told me I had to give her a dollar every time I said something sarcastic. It was the best she could do since HR told her shock collars violated OSHA regulations. Anyway, onward:

Study 3 demonstrated that sarcasm's effect on creativity for both parties was mediated by abstract thinking and generalizes across different forms of sarcasm. Finally, Study 4 found when participants expressed sarcasm toward or received sarcasm from a trusted other, creativity increased but conflict did not. We discuss sarcasm as a double-edged sword: despite its role in instigating conflict, it can also be a catalyst for creativity.

I would tell you more, but the abstract is all I have access to. Besides, I have a funny feeling that if I read the actual paper I'd find myself underwhelmed by the methodology. If you're looking for a justification for your witty repartee—and aren't we all?—maybe it's best just to let things stand where they are.

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Trump's Insults Are Weak, Lack Energy

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 8:16 PM EST

Me, yesterday, on how Donald Trump is likely to attack rising star Marco Rubio: "The obvious route for Trump is to mock Rubio's inability to balance his own checkbook, but I'm hoping for something more original."

Trump, today: "He is a disaster with credit cards. All you have to do is look." And: "He certainly lives above his means — there is no question about that."

That's really disappointing. Trump also went after Rubio on immigration and for not showing up to vote in the Senate. Bo-o-o-o-ring.

There's just no creativity here anymore. Remember when he called Jeb Bush "low energy"? That was great. Or that he couldn't imagine anyone voting for Carly Fiorina's ugly mug? Good times. It makes me wonder if Trump is really giving his all for America these days. Even the cover of his new book looks phoned in. I mean, is that supposed to be Blue Steel or Le Tigre? I can't tell.

Quote of the Day: "Death to America" Not Nearly as Unfriendly as You Think

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 5:18 PM EST

From Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

The slogan "death to America" is backed by reason and wisdom....It goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; this slogan means death to the US’s policies, death to arrogance.

I'm glad we finally got that cleared up. I guess "death to American cultural hegemony and neocolonialist military policies" is a little too long to make a good chant. Now about that "Great Satan" thing....

Do Anti-Poverty Programs Work Better Than We Think?

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 2:45 PM EST

Poverty data generally comes from the Census Bureau, which bases its analysis on the Current Population Survey. But do poor people under-report or underestimate the value of the programs they participate in? They might, and it seems to me it's pretty easy to figure this out. Add up the value of, say, all SNAP reports from the CPS, and then compare it to the actual amount of SNAP money the government sends out. If it doesn't match pretty closely, then the survey is off.

A pair of researchers recently took a look at how effective anti-poverty programs are, but they never mention this. I guess it must be harder than I think. Instead, they compare CPS data to detailed administrative data from the state of New York that's known to be highly accurate. They did this for four programs: TANF (basic welfare), SNAP (food stamps), subsidized housing, and general assistance. It turns out that poor people underestimate their annual benefits by about $1,500. This produces two conclusions. First, the authors believe that survey data in general is becoming less reliable over time. Second, they believe that anti-poverty programs lift a lot more people out of poverty than we think.

The chart below shows their basic conclusion. The overall poverty rate, for example, is 13.65 percent. Using conventional CPS data, that goes down to 10.9 percent after benefits. Using the higher-quality data, however, it appears that anti-poverty programs actually reduce the poverty rate to 8.4 percent. The effect is even more dramatic in households headed by single mothers. Apparently the war on poverty is going better than we thought.

Marco Rubio Needs to Come Clean on His Tax Plan

| Tue Nov. 3, 2015 2:01 PM EST

This is ridiculous. Marco Rubio says that percentage-wise his tax plan is more favorable to the poor than the rich, and both left and right-leaning tax groups agree. But—this is only because Rubio's plan includes a new $2,000 fully refundable personal tax credit. For those of you not in the know, "refundable" means you get it even if you don't owe any taxes. So if you're poor, and your tax bill is already zero, you get a check for $2,000 from Uncle Sam. For someone making minimum wage, that's a big chunk of money, and on a percentage basis it means that Rubio's plan is pretty generous.

But is this really Rubio's plan? After last week's debate, a Rubio spokesman told Vox, "Rules would be tailored to ensure that our reforms would not create payments for new, non-working filers." So....maybe the credit isn't fully refundable? Perhaps Rubio will update his plan to explain. Well, he did update his plan, and here's what it now says:

Creates a new $2,000 (individual) / $4,000 (married filing jointly) refundable personal tax credit in place of the standard deduction: Credit phases out beginning above $150,000 (individual) / $300,000 (married filing jointly) and would be unavailable to taxpayers with an annual income in excess of $200,000 (individual) / $400,000 (married filing jointly).

So Rubio took the time to specifically say that his tax credit would phase out at high levels, which makes almost no difference to anyone. But his update continues to say, without qualification, that his tax credit is refundable. This means that everyone gets a $2,000 check regardless of their tax bill.

Look: if you want to go the Ben Carson route and just vaguely say that you're in favor of a 10 or 15 percent flat tax, and don't worry your pretty heads about whether the math works, then fine. But if you offer up a very detailed plan, then you're responsible for the details. Rubio's plan says he's going to offer a $2,000 refundable tax credit to everyone. He was challenged on this, and in an update he still says he's going to offer a $2,000 refundable tax credit to everyone.

It's time for Rubio to knock off the games. If the refundable credit is really available to everyone, he needs to say so. If it's not, then his plan isn't very generous to the poor, and he needs to stop quoting analyses that assume the credit exists. He can't have it both ways. Which is it, Marco?