Kevin Drum

Will 2014 Finally Be the Year That Puts the Climate Denialists' 1998 Chestnut to Rest?

| Fri Jan. 16, 2015 12:09 PM EST

With 2014 now in the books, it's a good time to refresh our memories about the great conservative global warming hoax. Here's a look at the usual conservative presentation showing that the planet hasn't warmed even a teensy little bit over the past decade. Their go-to chart, which goes from 1998 through 2012, looks like this:

No warming! But how can that be? Well, if you cherry pick your start and end dates, you can show just about anything. Here's the same chart extended by a mere two years on either side. It goes from 1996 through 2014:

Warming! How about that? It's amazing how you can lie with numbers if you put your mind to to it. And here's the full chart since 1900:

This is apropos because NASA announced today that we set a record last year: "The year 2014 ranks as Earth's warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists."

The year 1998 was an outlier, an unusually warm year. If you choose this as your starting point, the next decade will look pretty uneventful. You can do the same thing with lots of other decade-long periods. For example, 1969-85 looks pretty flat, and so does 1981-94. This is typical of noisy data. Planetary warming isn't a smooth upward curve every year. It spikes up and down, and that allows people to play games with the data over short periods. Add to that the fact that warming really does appear to pause a bit now and again, and it's easy for charlatans to fool the rubes with misleading charts.

But in the end, physics and chemistry will do their thing regardless. Earth is warming up, as any honest look at the data makes clear. And 2014 is now yet another record-setting year. We'll see if that's enough to embarrass the Fox News set into giving up on the old 1998 chestnut.

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Chart of the Day: Thanks to Obamacare, Medical Debt Is Down

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 4:22 PM EST

A new survey from the Commonwealth Fund brings us good news and bad news. The good news is that, thanks to Obamacare, the number of people with serious medical debt issues has dropped from 41 percent to 35 percent. Hooray!

And the bad news? This barely gets us back to where we were a decade ago. We still have a long way to go.

Housekeeping Update

| Thu Jan. 15, 2015 11:24 AM EST

I continue to be death warmed over, the result of a cold that won't go away acting in some kind of diabolical concert with all the usual chemotherapy crap. I may blog a bit later, or I may not. Hard to tell right now. But I'll get better eventually.

Mitt Romney Is Going to Run for President Again? WTF?

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 5:34 PM EST

I'm sort of slowly catching up on things I missed over the past couple of days, and most of it at least makes sense. Wall Street panicked over a single bad economic report. Check. Boko Haram massacred another village in Nigeria. Check. Tea partiers still control the Republican agenda in Congress. Check. Mitt Romney is going to run for president again. Ch—

Wait. Mitt Romney is going to run for president again? Seriously? That's insane, isn't it? Can anyone aside from Romney's overpaid team of advisors and consultants actually make a good case that he can win?

I'm still a little woozy, so I'm not up to the job of trying to figure this out. But there's just no way. Parties don't rally around losers, and Romney is now a two-time loser. Ann Romney may still be nursing a planet-sized grudge about the way Mitt was treated in 2012, but that buys no votes. Besides, he'll be treated the same way this time around. Once a plutocrat, always a plutocrat. Maybe that's fair, maybe it's not, but nobody ever said life was fair.

So I guess I'm caught up. Except for this one thing. What the hell is Romney thinking?

Yep, Gasoline Lead Explains the Crime Decline in Canada Too

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 12:13 PM EST

Erik Eckholm of the New York Times writes that violent crime has plunged dramatically over the past two decades. But the reasons remain elusive:

There are some areas of consensus. The closing of open-air drug markets....revolution in urban policing....increases in drug and gun sentences....Various experts have also linked the fall in violence to the aging of the population, low inflation rates and even the decline in early-childhood lead exposure. But in the end, none of these factors fully explain a drop that occurred, in tandem, in much of the world.

“Canada, with practically none of the policy changes we point to here, had a comparable decline in crime over the same period,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor and an expert in criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley. He described the quest for an explanation as “criminological astrology.”

I'm happy to see lead at least get a shout out. Unless I've missed something, this might actually be the first time the New York Times has ever mentioned childhood lead exposure as a possible explanation for the decline in violent crime. Progress!

But while Eckholm is right to say that none of the other factors he mentions can explain a decline in violent crime that happened all over the world, he's wrong to include lead in that list. It's the one explanation that does have the potential to explain a worldwide drop in crime levels. In particular, the chart on the right shows the use of gasoline lead in Canada, which peaked in the mid-70s and then began dropping as catalytic converters became more common. Leaded gasoline was banned for good in 1990, and is now virtually gone with a few minor exceptions for specialized vehicles.

So what happened? As Zimring says, Canada saw a substantial decrease in violent crime that started about 20 years after lead emissions began to drop, which is exactly what you'd expect. I calculated the numbers for Canada's biggest cities back when I was researching my lead-crime piece, and crime was down from its peak values everywhere: 31 percent in Montreal, 36 percent in Edmonton, 40 percent in Toronto and Vancouver, and 53 percent in Ottawa. CompStat and broken windows and American drug laws can't explain that.

"Criminological astrology" is a good phrase to describe the relentless effort of US criminologists to explain a worldwide phenomenon using only parochial US data. But there is one explanation that really does work pretty well everywhere: the reduction in gasoline lead, which happened all over the world, but happened at different times in different places. And everywhere it happened, crime started to decline about 20 years later. No explanation is ever perfect, but this one comes closer than most.

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Jan. 13, 2015 10:44 AM EST

I'm fighting off a nasty cold, and later today I have an extended doctor's appointment up in Los Angeles. So no blogging today. With any luck, I'll be back tomorrow.

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Two Promising Factlets About American Schools

| Mon Jan. 12, 2015 11:29 AM EST

So how are our schools doing? Here are two factlets that crossed my radar yesterday.

First: Neerav Kingsland says that SAT scores of new teachers are rising and that most of them are staying in teaching for at least five years. He comments: "If I was going to bet on whether American education will improve, flatline, or get worse — I would look very hard at the academic performance of teachers entering the profession, as well as how long these better qualified teachers stayed in the classroom. The aforementioned data makes me more bullish on American education."

Second: Adam Ozimek says we're selling charter schools short when we say that on average they do about as well as public schools. That's true, but there's more to it:

I would like to propose a better conventional wisdom: “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students”. If the same evidence existed for some policy other than charter schools, I believe this would be the conventional wisdom.

....The charter sectors’ ability to do better for poor students and black students is important given that they disproportionately serve them....53% of charter students are in poverty compared 48% for public schools. Charters also serve more minority students than public schools: charters are 29% black, while public schools are 16%. So not only do they serve more poor students and black students, but for this group they relatively consistently outperform public schools.

It's been a while since I took a dive into the data on charter schools, so I'm passing this along without comment. But it sounds right. I continue to believe that as long as they're properly regulated, charter schools show substantial promise.

Quote of the Day: American Health Care Is the Best in the World, Baby!

| Sun Jan. 11, 2015 9:35 PM EST

From Douglas Coupland, after contracting bronchitis from a chilly hotel room in Atlanta:

Finally, I dragged myself to a local medical clinic, and this is when things got really American.

By "really American," he means that he ended up being part of a scam that involved deliberately not treating him in order to get him hooked on oxycodone. No worries, though. The socialist Canadian health system eventually saved him.

1958: The Year That Writing About Gay Rights Became Legal

| Sun Jan. 11, 2015 12:03 PM EST

I'm familiar with the usual highlights of the gay rights movement, but not much more. So I found today's article by David Savage about the 1958 Supreme Court case ONE vs. Olesen pretty interesting. Lower courts had ruled the Los Angeles magazine ONE obscene and therefore illegal to ship by mail, but a young lawyer named Eric Julber persuaded the editors to appeal to the Supreme Court:

By coincidence, the Supreme Court was struggling at the same time with the question of obscenity in a case involving Samuel Roth, a New York book dealer, who was appealing his conviction for selling sexually explicit books...."All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance — unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion — have the full protection of the guaranties" of the 1st Amendment, said Justice William J. Brennan in Roth vs. United States, handed down on June 24, 1957. "Sex and obscenity are not synonymous," he added.

With that ruling fresh in their minds, several Supreme Court law clerks read Julber's petition — as well as the magazine itself — and advised the justices it was not obscene. "This was an easy one for the liberal justices. It was a speech case," recalled Norman Dorsen, who was then a law clerk to conservative Justice John Marshall Harlan and would go on to lead the national ACLU from 1976 to 1991. But even the conservatives were not in favor of censorship practiced by the Post Office.

"The conservatives on the court then — Felix Frankfurter, Potter Stewart and Harlan — were not like the real conservatives we have now. They were more tolerant," he said. Brennan, the author of the Roth opinion, looked at all the petitions on his own. He would have seen the magazine and its supposedly obscene articles. After taking several votes, the justices decided on a simple, one-line ruling issued on Jan. 13, 1958, reversing the 9th Circuit decision.

This is obviously a bit of local color for us Southern Californians, but also an interesting tidbit in the history of gay rights for those of you who, like me, had never heard of it before. Worth a read.

Non-Chart of the Day: Where's the Austerity?

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 7:00 PM EST

Tyler Cowen passes along the following chart, a modified version of one Matt Yglesias used to show the trend of total government expenditures (federal + state + local) and declare "2014 is the year American austerity came to an end":

This comes from Angus, who comments incredulously: "From this graph I concluded one of two things must be true depending on one's definition of austerity. Either austerity means nominal cuts and we never had any of it, or austerity means cuts relative to trend and we are still savagely in its grasp."

Oh come on. There's an obvious third option. Let's take a look at this chart done right:

This is real per-capita government expenditures (using 2014 dollars). I used CPI, but it looks the same no matter which inflation measure you prefer (PCE, GDP deflator, % of GDP, whatever).

Austerity is all about the trajectory of government spending, and this is what it looks like. You can argue about whether flat spending represents austerity, but a sustained decline counts in anyone's book. The story here is simple: for a little while, in 2009 and 2010, stimulus spending partially offset state and local cuts, but by the end of 2010 the stimulus had run its course. From then on, the drop in government expenditures was steady and significant. It was also unprecedented. If you run this chart back for 50 years you'll never see anything like it. In all previous recessions and their aftermaths, government spending rose.

Finally, in 2014, the spending decline stopped. Austerity was over, and now we're even starting to see a small uptick in government spending. At the same time, the economy started to pick up.

This is not bulletproof evidence that austerity is bad for the economy, or that government spending helps it. But it's certainly consistent with the hypothesis, and it's really not hard to see.