Kevin Drum

Weird Tales and Trade Treaties

| Fri May 15, 2015 11:59 AM EDT

Watching the political fight over the TPP trade treaty has been kind of interesting. FWIW, two things strike me as a little odd:

  • Historically, it's been Republicans who bitch and moan about how treaties are invasions of American sovereignty. And of course they are. If you sign a treaty with another country, there has to be some kind of neutral mediator that can decide if the treaty has been breached, and this is ipso facto an infringement of sovereignty for both countries. Democrats usually laugh this off, since it's an obvious feature of any treaty (would you sign a treaty with Pakistan where Pakistan unilaterally gets to resolve all disputes?). This time, however, the worm has turned and it's Democrats who are loudly objecting to something called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement, which sets up a special tribunal to adjudicate disputes brought by corporations against rules that they think violate the TPP. Republicans don't care much.

    I don't have any big point to make here. It's just kind of interesting to see the two sides switch.
  • I'm a little puzzled about why Republicans are so gung-ho to get TPP passed in the first place. Sure, they're generally in favor of trade treaties, but it's not exactly one of their hot button issues. And yet, they seem to be going out of their way to help President Obama get it passed. Given their recent track record, I'd expect them to yawn and tell Obama he's on his own to whip the votes he needs. Is there some deeper strategy here that I'm not getting? Do they truly think this is going to rip the Democratic Party to shreds with months of vicious infighting? Or what?

Anyway, it looks to me like TPP is going to pass. These things nearly always do after a bit of grandstanding followed by some face-saving compromises. It might be close, but it will pass.

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Lunatic Conspiracy Theories Aren't What They Used to Be

| Thu May 14, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

As you may recall, a couple of weeks ago there was a minor hoorah over a military training exercise called Jade Helm, scheduled to take place this summer in various states in the southwest. A few lunatics in Texas got wind of this, along with a map or two, and decided that Jade Helm was really just a pretense for President Obama to take over Texas.

Sadly for me, this all happened while I was near the bottom of my chemotherapy regimen and I barely had enough energy to make an occasional run to the bathroom, let alone write blog posts about stuff like this. Today, however, the fine folks at PPP have given me a second bite at the apple. They polled a bunch of Republicans about Jade Helm, and then broke down the answers by which candidate they currently support. Here are the results:

Apparently a full third of the Republican base believes that President Obama plans to order the military to take over Texas. Booyah! And supporters of Ted Cruz and Rick Perry—who are probably mostly from Texas—believe this idiocy by 60-70 percent.

So what do we take from this? I think there are two main interpretations:

  • Fox and Rush and the rest of the conservative media have driven conservatives into such a frenzy that a third of them really, truly do believe that President Obama plans a military takeover of Texas.
  • Poll questions like this no longer have any real meaning. This is basically little more than a survey of mood affiliation that tests how much you hate and distrust President Obama. That is to say, a yes answer has little or nothing to with Jade Helm. It just means you really hate and distrust Obama.

I'm inclined to the second interpretation myself. It's all good fun, but no, I don't think that a third of Republicans really believe this nonsense. It's just their way of showing that they're members in good standing of the political faction that believes Obama is capable of anything in his power-mad struggle to turn the United States into a socialist hellhole. The rest is just fluff.

Asians Are Kicking Ass in Silicon Valley, So Why Are So Few in the Boardroom?

| Thu May 14, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Asians are far less likely than whites to land tech leadership roles. Ascend

When people talk about the need for diversity in tech, they aren't usually talking about Asian Americans. Though they make up less than 6 percent of the overall workforce, Asians account for a whopping 17 percent of all tech-sector workers and a far higher percentage of engineers. (At Twitter, for instance, people of Asian descent hold 34 percent of the technical positions.) By focusing exclusively on the obvious need for more blacks, Latinos, and women in Silicon Valley, however, diversity advocates have missed a key point: Asian workers are far less likely than whites to end up in the leadership ranks.

White workers were 2.5 times more likely than Asian workers to end up in leadership roles, the study found.

According to a study that the nonprofit Ascend Foundation released last week, white workers are two and a half times more likely then their Asian counterparts to serve as executives at major tech companies. The study, which examined the workforce demographics at Google, HP, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, found that the "Asian effect" was nearly four times greater than gender as a glass-ceiling factor. (The authors also pointed to leadership gaps for blacks and Latinos, but dismissed those results as less statistically significant, given how few blacks and Latinos are employed by the industry overall.)

The finding for Asians is notable, among other reasons, for what it says about the case of Ellen Pao, whose unsuccessful sex discrimination case against her former employer, the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, obsessed the technology press. Though the particulars of her case are unique, the study suggests that Pao, as an Asian American, was 40 percent as likely as a white woman and 28 percent as likely as a white man to land in a leadership role.

"Asians are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Pandora's Lisa Lee, "so they may be overlooked."

The "bamboo ceiling," as author Jane Hyun terms it, is hardly limited to technology, but its existence in a sector where Asians are thriving illustrates the intractability of the problem. Hyun blames the workers for the promotion gap, arguing that they need to take a page from Sheryl Sandberg and "lean in." But other observers, such as Lisa Lee, a senior diversity manager for Pandora, point to the need for companies to curb their preconceptions about who will make a good leader.

"Asians and Asian Americans are generally stereotyped as being nonconfrontational or timid," says Lee, the former publisher of Hyphen, a magazine about the Asian-American experience. "So they may be overlooked for leadership roles because they're not thought of as leadership material. This has nothing to do with their actual skills or abilities. Part of the solution is companies making a concerted effort to address bias in the promotion process to ensure it's more fair for everyone."

There may be additional factors at play. Mario Lugay, a program officer at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which advocates for diversity in tech, makes the point that non-Asians are quick to lump Asians into one category, whereas Silicon Valley, for example, includes economically disadvantaged Southeast Asians and foreign-born workers from a variety of cultures. "My hope is that we strive to research and address the nuances of underrepresentation," says Lugay, who is Filipino. "That includes the diversity within the category of Asian, as well as Asian Americans."

Health Update

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

Today was my one-week follow-up at City of Hope, and everything seems pretty peachy. My counts are down since I'm no longer getting meds that artificially stimulate white blood cell production, but even without the meds my counts are all within the normal range and will likely be even better at my next follow-up. Every other lab result was positive too. I will remain fatigued for some time, but the extreme fatigue should last only another week or two. We hope.

Assuming that I have no setbacks, the next real milestone will be a bone marrow biopsy at the end of June to see if I've achieved total remission. I will then have to decide if I want to begin Revlimid maintenance therapy, which I'm very much undecided on at the moment (my doctor is all in favor). Other than that, I just wait to get better.

For my follow-up visit today I was directed to the DEM clinic. I wonder how they knew? And where do Republicans go? I guess it's a secret. But I'll bet their clinic is pretty nice. Probably open bar and free massages while you wait.

These Are the Reasons Why Cats Still Rule the Internet

| Wed May 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ana Marie Cox.

I was at a small conference on religion and public policy recently—the Faith Angle Forum, it's called. It's a pretty heady affair with Serious Journalists talking Serious Subjects: the theological-versus-cultural origins of ISIS's brutality, whether you can use "principled pluralism" to bring together the left and right regarding gay marriage, and—headiest of all—a presentation from the former chief rabbi of England on "religious solutions to religious environments."

So, obviously, I was sneaking in some cat-picture viewing between sessions. (This is a proven productivity practice and a much needed source of solace in discussing these troubled times.) I was also particularly tickled to inform the other attendees, during the Islamic State panel, that one of my favorite cat photo platforms, BuzzFeed, also has been doing some pretty stellar reporting on ISIS's use of social media. There were surprised but polite murmurs!

There are things we bloggers have in common with cats: We are antisocial. We like things on our own terms. We break stuff for fun. We're judgy.

At dinner, one of the presenters from the panel, Princeton Near Eastern studies scholar Bernard Haykel, asked me about BuzzFeed. He is up on his jihadi poetry and can explain the reasons why Salafi Islam resists outside calls for reform, but he has not apparently seen Anna Kendrick quotes as motivational posters.

"It's a great news site that also has lots of cat pictures," I told him.

"Hmmm," he said. "Why cats?"

Haykel uses the internet primarily for the study of ISIS propaganda and debates among Muslim theologians, so it's difficult not to see in his question the suggestion of what the internet's pro-cat bias must look like to an outsider: A MASSIVE RECRUITMENT EFFORT. Or, at the very least, a successful co-option of an entire medium to support the tuna-industrial complex.

I am so used to taking cats on the internet for granted, it had been some time since I thought about why cats.

The simple version of the story is this: Early bloggers, like Kevin, were cat people. Atrios. Glenn Reynolds. Me. Bloggers=cat people. There are theories about why blogger people are cat people, of course. There are things we have in common with cats: We are antisocial. We like things on our own terms. We break stuff for fun. We're judgy.

Though there are also things that make cats attractive to us, things cats have that blogger-types might want for themselves: Grace. Self-actualization. Sleeping 18 hours a day.

That early bloggers popularized cat blogging doesn't really explain why cats are still the internet's favorite pet, though it seems like we could extrapolate that the typical modern internet consumer is, temperamentally, more like the early bloggers than not. More insecure, more skeptical, less eager to please than your Boomer generation and its slavish canines.

Ana Marie Cox/Instagram

And there are more concrete influences to consider: Americans are living alone longer, moving around more, and have less money than they used to—cats fit the cultural moment. Cats are less burdensome than dogs on a daily basis, but that compromise is met with limited rewards: conditional affection, no tricks, hairballs. Perhaps millennials and cats make a match because cats are very much like the on-demand economy, which trades convenience for only elusive security.

Cats are Uber, but for love.

Well, I am being unfair to cats. And to Uber, for that matter—Uber has made a practice of occasionally delivering kittens to offices in need of mid-day pick-me-ups. These stunts sell out quickly, which attests to the internet's cat fixation but also to the ultimate snuggle-worthiness of cats—and humans. Sure, we may find cats' affections maddeningly, attractively unpredictable but, deep down, we suspect cats love us. And perhaps because that affection is so hard to pin down, it feels genuine.

On the internet, where everything is suspect, cats—while sneaky—are above suspicion. The internet is virtual. Cats are real. The internet is about debate. Cats are undebatable.

As Kevin himself pointed out back in 2004, the cats are the medium, not the message:

"I'd just blogged a whole bunch of stuff about what was wrong with the world," Mr. Drum said. "And I turned around and I looked out the window, and there was one of my cats, just plonked out, looking like nothing was wrong with the world at all."

"Why cats?" Bernard asked. Because cats.

China's Future, Take 2

| Tue May 12, 2015 7:51 PM EDT

After writing my post this morning about China's economic future, I got an email response from an American who lived there for nearly two decades and had a different perspective on what China's biggest problem might be going forward. Obviously this is just one person's opinion, and I can't independently vouch for it, but I thought it was interesting enough to share. Here it is:

I read with interest your musings on the future of China. As it happens, I lived for 17 years in Beijing, married, and started a family there.

I believe the macro-level statistics and phenomena you discuss are all trailing indicators. I left China with my family almost five years ago as a large number of interrelated quality-of-life issues became increasingly unbearable. Those factors have continued to worsen since then at an accelerating rate, to the point where the economy is now largely driven by people trying to earn or steal enough money to leave.

The once-thriving expat community in Beijing has shriveled to nearly nothing. The cost of living is approaching world-capital (NY, London, Tokyo, etc.) levels for a miserable existence. The local culture has become increasingly desperate and cutthroat. And Beijing is one of the more attractive places in China to live, work, and raise a family.

People, generally, and Chinese especially, will tolerate all sorts of deprivation in service of a better future for their children. And that is largely what has driven the rapid pace of Chinese development since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's opening and reform policies. My feeling is that biggest challenge ahead for China is when the population at large concludes that a better future for their children is no longer in the cards.

When it happens, it will happen gradually, then suddenly. And what happens after that, no one can say, but a continuation of the policies driving hyper-accelerated GDP growth over all else probably isn't it.

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Apparently Jeb Bush Needs a Hearing Aid, Stat

| Tue May 12, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

Yesterday's quote of the day:

Megyn Kelly: Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the [Iraq] invasion?

Jeb Bush: I would have.

Really? As Byron York points out, even George W. Bush himself has some qualms about the war knowing what we know now—namely that the intel about Saddam's WMD was all 100 percent fiction derived from phony sources and wishful thinking. So how is ol' Jeb going to clean up this steaming pile of gaffe-osity? Like this, according to former Bush aide Ana Navarro:

I emailed him this morning and I said to him, 'Hey, I'm a little confused by this answer so I'm genuinely wondering did you mishear the question?'" Navarro said. "And he said, 'Yes, I misheard the question.'"

....On Tuesday morning, Navarro she wasn't sure whether he would clarify the answer.

Hoo boy. That's his story? Good luck with that.

Property Bubble, Tech Bubble, What's Next For China?

| Tue May 12, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

I've long been conflicted about China's prospects for the future. On the one hand, their growth rate has been impressive over the past few decades, and their long-term growth seems to be reasonably well assured too. But there are clouds on the horizon. Demographics are one: China is getting older, and by 2030 nearly a quarter of the country will be elderly. There's also a problem that's inherent to growth: As China gets richer and more middle class, their labor costs will rise, eliminating one of their key attractions to Western manufacturers.

But what about the short term? That's starting to look problematic too. China's stock markets have been on a massive, bubblicious tear recently, none more so than the exchanges that specialize in tech companies. Matt O'Brien speculates about the underlying cause of this mania:

Why are China's stock markets partying like it's 1999? Well, part of it is that China's housing bubble might be bursting—new home prices fell 5.1 percent in January—and the only other place people can put their money is in stocks. Another part is that China's state-owned media companies have been saying for months that stocks look cheap, and people are listening. Especially people who haven't graduated from high school. Indeed, 67 percent of China's new stock investors don't have a high school diploma. And now that China has cut interest rates so much—and looks like it will keep doing so—they can borrow money to buy as many stocks as they want. And that's a lot. So-called margin accounts, which let people do this, more than doubled in 2014, and, even though brokerages have tightened their terms a bit, they're still growing.

So whether you want to call this a boom, a bull market, or a mania doesn't really matter. A bubble by any other name will pop just as much.

The best-case scenario is probably that China's central bank manages to engineer a fairly normal cyclical recession, which will be mild and short-lived. The worst-case scenario is that borrowing is fueling more of this boom than we think, and China will shortly experience a bursting property and stock bubble that will look an awful lot like the one we went through in 2008.

Still, I will say one thing in China's favor: a lot of analysts have been predicting a crash for a long time, and somehow China's economy just keeps rolling along. On the other hand, to paraphrase Keynes, bubbles can last a helluva lot longer than you'd think. But eventually they all burst anyway.

So color me nervous about China. At the same time, keep in mind that all I know is what I read in the papers. I might be totally off base with my concerns.

Why Do We Give Medical Treatment That Increases Patients' Chances of Dying?

| Tue May 12, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Aaron E. Carroll.

I saw this study a few weeks ago on blood pressure treatment for nursing home residents, and I almost ignored it. There are so many like it. But it's just ridiculous that this kind of stuff continues, and that we can't seem to do anything about it.

We know that in many people, high blood pressure is bad. We therefore try and do things to lower it. But then we go ahead and decide that if lowering blood pressure in some people is good, it must be good for everyone. In frail, elderly people, however, there's no evidence for this—and there may be evidence that lowering blood pressure is a bad idea. But that runs counter to what we've always been told, so many ignore it.

Getting doctors to change their behavior is hard, and getting them to stop doing something may be even harder.

This was a longitudinal study of elderly people living in nursing homes, meaning that the authors recruited people there and then followed them for about two years. They were interested in seeing how different aspects of care were related to the subjects' chance of dying. Almost 80 percent of them were being treated for high blood pressure (in spite of the above). A previous analysis of this study had shown that blood pressure was inversely related to all-cause mortality "even after adjusting for several confounders, such as age, sex, history of previous cardiovascular (CV) disease, Charlson Comorbidity Index score, cognitive function (Mini-Mental State Examination), and autonomy status (activities of daily living)." This study went further, to look at whether being on lots of drugs for high blood pressure was bad—even after controlling for the blood pressure relationship.

Patients in this study were on an average of seven drugs and were on at least two drugs for high blood pressure.

What the study found, to no one's real surprise, is that the people on two or more blood pressure medications who had a systolic blood pressure of less than 130 mm Hg had a significantly higher all-cause mortality. This held true even after additionally adjusting for propensity score–matched subsets, other cardiovascular issues, and the exclusion of patients without a history of hypertension who were receiving BP-lowering agents.

We know that there’s evidence that keeping blood pressure lower in this population might be bad. Yet, many of these patients were not only being treated for "high" blood pressure—many were on multiple medications for it. Those on more medications (i.e. more treatment) were more likely to die.

Here's the kicker: This wasn't a study done in the United States. It was done in France and Italy—so this isn't me bashing on the US health care system. It's a problem that's writ large. We find something that is bad. We find that lessening it is better. We then start to lessen it even more. Soon we're trying to lessen it for everyone. We're saying it's too high in all populations, even when we don't have evidence that's true. We say it even as evidence builds that less is bad for lots of people.

Better clinical decision support might help, but we can't seem to get that in electronic health records, and doctors hate those anyway. Many are still unaware that guidelines even exist.

And then when things get really bad, we act as if we weren't to blame. From an editorial in JAMA:

It is surprising that among frail elderly patients with a systolic blood pressure less than 130 mm Hg (20 percent of the studied group), the use of multiple antihypertensive drugs was continued, because few evidence-based data support this approach.

Really? It's surprising?

Getting doctors to change their behavior is hard, and getting them to stop doing something may be even harder. But all of this is important, and it's part of why health services research is so critical.

A final note: Even when I'm upset about some aspects of medicine, I'm grateful for so many others—like the ones helping Kevin right now. I'm crazy about health care. I'll keep poking it with a stick. That's how I show my love.

America Is Now the Best Place in the World for the Progressive Agenda

| Mon May 11, 2015 10:00 AM EDT
Britain's Labour Party leader Ed Miliband delivering his resignation speech.

The United Kingdom voted on May 7 to determine its next government. Despite predictions that there would be a hung parliament with an advantage to Labor in forming a coalition government, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead the Conservatives won an outright majority, meaning that David Cameron will continue as Prime Minister, not Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, as most believed.

Naturally, Labor Party supporters, and progressives in general, are aghast at this outcome. And certainly a Labor government would have governed differently than the Tories, who have been ruling the UK since 2010 and have famously adopted budget austerity as their main economic policy. But how differently? Oddly, the ascension of "Red Ed", as the British tabloid press likes to call him, may not have made as big a difference as one might think. This is because the Labor Party did not propose to break decisively from the pro-austerity policies of the Tory government. Indeed, the Labor Party election manifesto promised to "cut the deficit every year" regardless of the state of the economy.

Could the torchbearer for social democratic progress be the Democrats in 2016?

This "Budget Responsibility Lock", as the manifesto jauntily called it, may seem bonkers given everything we have learned about the negative economic effects of austerity policies since 2010, including in the UK, and the rapidly declining intellectual credibility of austerity as an economic doctrine. Well, that's because it is bonkers, as Paul Krugman explains in a lengthy article for The Guardian with the somewhat despairing title: "The austerity delusion: The case for cuts was a lie—Why does Britain still believe it?"

The bulk of Krugman's article is a detailed and very convincing analysis of how nutty austerity was as a policy and how poorly it has worked. However, I'm not sure he really clears up the question of why British economic discourse is still dominated by this mythology. But this is a tough one. And it's not as if the British Labor Party is alone in its attempts to reconcile social democracy with austerity; most continental social democratic parties are having similar difficulties breaking out of the austerity framework.

In fact, the center left party that's most ostentatiously stepped out of this framework is that wild-eyed band of Bolsheviks, the American Democratic Party, which has moved steadily away from deficit mania since 2011. This raises an interesting question. Given the macroeconomic straightjacket European social democrats seem determined to keep themselves in, is the Democratic Party really the torchbearer now for social democratic progress?

In this regard, it's interesting to turn to a recent book by political scientist Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic America, that makes the case (summarized here and here) that, over the long term, the US is, in fact, on a social democratic course.

By social democracy, Kenworthy means an economic system featuring "a commitment to the extensive use of government policy to promote economic security, expand opportunity, and ensure rising living standards for all… [I]t aims to do so while also safeguarding economic freedom, economic flexibility, and market dynamism, all of which have long been hallmarks of the U.S. economy." He calls this "modern" social democracy, contrasting with "traditional" social democracy in that it goes beyond merely helping people survive without employment to also providing "services aimed at boosting employment and enhancing productivity: publicly funded child care and preschool, job-training and job-placement programs, significant infrastructure projects, and government support for private-sector research and development."

Kenworthy anticipates that, as we move toward this kind of social democracy, we will do most of the following:

1) Increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation.

2) Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit while making it available to middle income families and indexing it to GDP per capita.

3) Increase benefit levels and loosen eligibility levels for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, general assistance, food stamps, housing assistance, and energy assistance.

4) Mandate paid parental leave.

5) Expand access to unemployment insurance.

6) Increase the Child Care Tax Credit.

7) Universalize access to pre-K.

8) Institute a supplemental defined contribution plan with automatic enrollment.

9) Increase federal spending on public child care, roads and bridges, and health care; and mandate more holidays and vacation time for workers.

It's interesting to note that most of this list is consistent with the mainstream policy commitments of the Democratic Party and that a good chunk of it will probably find its way into the platform of the 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate. Maybe Kenworthy's prediction is not so far-fetched.

One other reason to see the US as a potential beacon for social democratic progress stems from the nature of political coalitions in an era of demographic change. In the United States, the Democratic Party has largely succeeded in capturing the current wave of modernizing demographic change (immigrants, minorities, professionals, seculars, unmarried women, the highly-educated, the Millennial generation, etc.) Emerging demographic groups generally favor the Democrats by wide margins, which combined with residual strength among traditional constituencies gives them a formidable electoral coalition. The challenge for American progressives is therefore mostly about keeping their demographically enhanced coalition together in the face of conservative attacks and getting it to turn out in midterm elections.

The situation is different in Europe, where modernizing demographic change has, so far, not done social democratic parties much good. One reason is that some of these demographic changes do not loom as large in most European countries as they do in the United States. The immigrant/minority population starts from a smaller base so the impact of growth, even where rapid, is more limited. And the younger generation, while progressive, does not have the population weight it does in America.

Beyond that, however, is a factor that has prevented social democrats from harnessing the still-considerable power of modernizing demographic change in Europe. That is the nature of European party systems. Unlike in the United States, where the center-left party, the Democrats, has no meaningful electoral competition for the progressive vote, European social democrats typically do have such competition and from three different parts of the political spectrum: greens; left socialists; and liberal centrists. And not only do they have competition, these other parties, on aggregate, typically overperform among emerging demographics, while social democrats generally underperform. Thus it would appear that social democrats, who have also hemmoraged support from traditional working class voters, will be increasingly unable to build viable progressive coalitions by themselves.

Bringing progressive constituencies together across parties is of course difficult to do and so far European social democrats seem completely at sea on how to handle this challenge. Much easier to have all those constituencies together in one party—like we do in the United States.

The road to progress isn't clear anywhere but, defying national stereotypes, it's starting to look a bit clearer in the US than in Europe.