Kevin Drum

Stop Blaming Suburbia for Killing Off Friendships

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 10:32 AM EDT

Dave Roberts is unhappy with the fact that we struggle to make new friends after college:

I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was this: The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That's why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

....But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don't leave except to drive somewhere.

This is a common critique, but I don't think it holds water. For starters, read The Organization Man. As William Whyte reports, spontaneous new friendships were quite common in 1950s suburbia—which was architecturally quite similar to today's suburbia. This was certainly true of my stucco tract house neighborhood when I was growing up. Second, New Urbanists have been trying for a long time to create communities that encourage spontaneous friendships, and they routinely fail. Build houses with stoops, and everyone stays inside anyway.

Or take my current suburban neighborhood. It's pretty typical. Everyone is friendly, and we know our near neighbors. Some close friendships have developed, but that's about it. Across the street there's a nearly identical neighborhood, but this one is far more close-knit, throwing Halloween parties and July 4th bashes and just generally socializing in a way that mine doesn't. Why?

I'm not entirely convinced that the nature of friendships has actually changed all that much during the past few centuries of civilization. Some people are sociable and some aren't. But if I'm wrong, I still don't think it's primarily because of changes in the built environment. Maybe it's due to the fact that women don't routinely stay home during the day and socialize with neighbors. Maybe it's because of air conditioning and TV. Maybe we all figured out that picking friends by random location (i.e., living next door) didn't make much sense once we had other options. Or maybe it's just that smart verbal types tend to be a little introverted, and we hear from them more often than anyone else.

And stop blaming graduation from college! Half the country never went to college, but I'll bet they have as many (or more) friends than the rest of us. How do they manage that if they skipped college and live in the same kinds of places as us overeducated types?

Anyway, consider this is a challenge. Do modern Americans really have fewer close friends than in the past? Establish that before you go any further. If it turns out to be true, why? I don't think the evidence really supports the idea that it's mostly due to the nature of suburban living. (Do apartment dwellers have more friends than homeowners?) This becomes a much more interesting question when we get over our obsession with the evils of suburbia.

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Reading and Math Scores Changed Barely At All This Year

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 12:15 AM EDT

New NAEP test scores are out for grades 4 and 8. Because the NAEP is such a trusted low-stakes test, you're going to hear a lot about what these new scores "mean." Maybe even from me! But here's the one thing you need to know before you read anyone telling you that these scores prove that standardized tests are good (or bad) or that Arne Duncan is an idiot (or a hero) or that teachers unions are a mess (or a godsend): the change in test scores was tiny.

Over the long term, NAEP scores in both math and reading have increased steadily and substantially. However, they've always bounced around by a few points both up and down in every cycle. This isn't to say that the 2015 scores are meaningless, but you should pay no attention to any sensational declarations from any side in the ed wars. This year's scores are a downward blip, something we've seen before. It will be many years before we know for sure if they're anything more than that.

A Quick Guide to Interpreting Everything You Hear About Obamacare Rate Increases

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

How much are health care premiums on the Obamacare exchanges set to rise in 2016? That depends. Here are a few possible answers:

  • If everyone keeps the coverage they currently have, Charles Gaba estimates that the weighted average increase—that is, weighting states with bigger populations more heavily—will be about 12-13 percent.
  • If everyone shops around and chooses the second-lowest price silver plan, the federal government estimates that the weighted average on federal exchanges will go up 7.5 percent.
  • It depends on the state. If you live in California, you can figure on about a 4 percent increase. Texas? 5.1 percent. Oklahoma? 35.7 percent.
  • If you live in a big city and you shop around, Kaiser estimates that the weighted average will go down 0.7 percent if you account for the average size of the federal subsidy. In some cities, the decrease is even larger.

In other words, depending on how scary you feel like being, you can accurately cite the increase as 35.7 percent, 12-13 percent, 7.5 percent, or negative 0.7 percent. For example:

  • Obama: "In my hometown of Chicago, rates are going down by 5 percent."
  • Democratic think tank: "If you shop around for the best rate, HHS estimates an average increase of 7.5 percent on the federal exchanges."
  • Republican think tank: "Liberal analyst Charles Gaba estimates an average increase of 13 percent, with 18 states seeing increases of 20 percent or more."
  • Trump: "Some people tell me their rates are going up by 25, even 35 percent!"

Every one of these is an accurate citation. So which one is the fairest? I'd say (a) you should count the tax credit since that affects what people actually pay, (b) some people will shop around and some won't, and (c) you should usually cite a broad national estimate, not a state or local number.1 With all that taken into account, my prediction is that the average person using Obamacare will see an increase of about 6-7 percent.

1Obviously there are exceptions to all of these. If the Los Angeles Times wants to report on average increases in Los Angeles, then it should use the Los Angeles number. If you're reporting on how well insurance companies are doing at estimating the premiums they need to charge, you should use raw numbers that don't count the tax credit. Etc.

But if you do a telephone survey of Obamacare users next year and simply ask them, "How much more are you paying for health insurance than last year," I think we're going to end up around 6-7 percent.

President Obama Stares Down the Chinese

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

President Obama recently decided to send the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen to one of those little islands China is building in the South China Sea, and which China claims as part of its territorial waters. So how did the Chinese react?

The decision...angered China, which said last month it would “never allow any country” to violate what it considers to be its territorial waters and airspace around the islands. The U.S. vessel entered Chinese waters “illegally and without the Chinese government’s permission,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement, adding that Chinese authorities had monitored and warned it as it passed.

“The action by the U.S. warship has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the safety of personnel and facilities on the islands and damaged regional peace and stability,” he said, urging the United States to “correct its wrongdoing immediately” and not take further “dangerous and provocative actions.” Hours later, China’s vice foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus to deliver a formal protest.

Oooh. After saying they would "never allow" such a thing, the Chinese....issued a statement and then called in our ambassador to protest. Scary.

Seriously, though: can you imagine the ballistic outrage if Obama had reacted like this to a Chinese sail-by? Republicans would practically be ready to start impeachment hearings. It would be yet another sign of the weakened world standing of the United States under Democratic leadership.

But when it's the other way around, is it a sign of plummeting Chinese leadership? Or Obama's steely-eyed projection of American power? Judging by the non-reaction, I guess not. Go figure.

Can a Bit of Kabuki Theater Save the Republican Party?

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

The Republican kabuki going on right now is a marvel of the age. Apparently pretty much everyone in Washington, DC—Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, House Freedom lunatics—has agreed to keep mum about John Boehner's lipstick-on-a-pig budget deal with the president. Everyone, that is, except the presumptive new speaker, Paul Ryan:

"I think the process stinks," said Ryan, who is expected to be elected speaker on Thursday. The Wisconsin Republican added that he hadn't gone through the details of the agreement, which was released Monday night.

"This is not the way to do the people's business," Ryan said. "And under new management we are not going to do the people's business this way. We are up against a deadline—that's unfortunate. But going forward we can't do the people's business. As a conference we should've been meeting months ago to discuss these things to have a unified strategy going forward."

This is so staged it makes Dame Edna look serious. Ryan has basically been given permission to blast the deal in order to verify his conservative bona fides, and everyone else understands this is just an act. Even the ultras have apparently made the following, fairly obvious calculation:

So the deal was struck. Everyone eats the shit sandwich. Paul Ryan pretends to oppose it. A battered, bruised, but slightly less slapstick Republican Party moves forward.

In Politics, Hate > Love

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 10:50 AM EDT

Ezra Klein explains the power of the dark side today:

Abramowitz and Webster test a host of political characteristics to see what best predicts party loyalty. The real key, they found, was fear of the other party: "Regardless of the strength of their attachment to their own party, the more voters dislike the opposing party, the greater the probability that they will vote consistently for their own party’s candidates."

It's worth saying that a bit more clearly: you're more likely to vote Democratic if you hate Republicans than if you love Democrats, and vice versa. What parties need to do to keep you loyal isn't make you inspired. Rather, they need to make you scared.

Or, if Robert Heinlein is more to your taste than George Lucas: "If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for, but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against." That's certainly true of me. Over my lifetime, the Republican Party has done far more to repulse me than the Democratic Party has done to appeal to me. But the result in the voting booth would be about the same either way.

Anyway, I don't think this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. However, the chart below is interesting because it shows the proximate cause of all this polarization: Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Other presidents have little effect one way or another. This suggests either (a) Reagan and Bush were far more radical than other presidents, (b) Republican voters already hated Democrats so much that Clinton and Obama didn't really have much impact, or (c) Democrats are awfully sensitive to losing power for a few years. I report, you decide.

UPDATE: Hmmm. I guess I should have gotten out a straightedge instead of relying on my tired old eyes. That first spike actually starts during Jimmy Carter's term. So....apparently the Republican base got radicalized first, and Democrats picked up the ball later. Or something. I've corrected the chart.

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Boehner, Obama Show What a Couple of Lame Ducks Can Accomplish

| Tue Oct. 27, 2015 9:58 AM EDT

Apparently John Boehner has done his bit to clean the ol' congressional barn before decamping Capitol Hill for West Chester Township and a golf-filled retirement. (Or a condo near K Street. No telling which, really.) He's reached a budget deal with the president that increases social spending and saves the Social Security disability fund (yay Democrats!), and increases defense spending, tightens penalties for defrauding the disability program, and cuts payments to Medicare providers (yay Republicans!). Everyone gets a break from government shutdowns and debt ceiling threats (yay ordinary citizens!).

But what about those entitlement cuts? Should liberals be worried? Greg Sargent reports that we shouldn't be:

On Medicare and Social Security: Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works, a group that strenuously opposes benefits cuts and argues for their expansion, tells me that the deal “doesn’t actually cut benefits or really hurt beneficiaries who aren’t gaming the system.”

Altman says the Medicare cuts are all on the provider side, which could harm beneficiaries at some point, but it’s not a major concern. “On the Medicare side, they limited their cuts to far in the future, and to providers,” Altman says. “There’s time to correct that.”

On the change to Social Security, Altman says: “They stiffened the penalties for fraud, they extended nationwide efforts to make sure that payments are accurate and they closed a loophole in which people were gaming the system. They didn’t change eligibility requirements or reduce the level of benefits.”

So I guess that's not bad. The defense side of the budget actually ended up getting a bigger increase than the non-defense side, but I suppose we can all live with that. Gotta kill us some Taliban terrorists, after all. And ISIS terrorists. And Assad terrorists.

So now we can all get back to the business of the day: reporting on whatever loony thing Ben Carson or Donald Trump said. I think they're arguing right now about whether Ben Carson wants to abolish Medicare and turn old people into soylent green. Or something. I might have that wrong. I'll check into it later.

Media Takes Usual Sober Approach to Latest Cancer Warning

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 8:37 PM EDT

The Guardian wins today's award for misleading science reporting. "Bacon, sausages and ham rank alongside smoking as causes of cancer," their headline thunders, and technically that's true. About as true as saying that my housecats "rank alongside" elephants as large mammals.

In other words, size matters, not just taxonomy. So what does the World Health Organization really say? This is from their handy Q&A:

About 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat....These numbers contrast with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600 000 per year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200 000 per year due to air pollution.

The consumption of processed meat was associated with small increases in the risk of cancer in the studies reviewed....An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.

In other words, the WHO took care to explicitly say that processed meat didn't rank alongside smoking when it comes to cancer risk.

Colorectal cancer is fairly common as cancers go, but it still affects only about 4.5 percent of the population. What's more, an increase of "18 percent" does not mean your cancer risk skyrockets from 4.5 percent to 22.5 percent. It means that if you eat a few ounces of processed meat—bacon, bratwurst, ballpark franks, spam1every day, your lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer goes up from 4.5 percent to 5.3 percent.

That's not nothing. You're probably better off taking it easy on the spam. Nevertheless, not everything in the category "causes cancer" is created equal. If you're really worried about cancer, cut out the smoking, the drinking, the overeating, and the city living. Once you've done that, then it's time to decide if you also want to skip the bacon.

1But not hamburger, despite what the Guardian's photo editor seems to think.

House Hostage Takers Give Up, But Promise Plenty of Hostages in Future

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 6:16 PM EDT

The good news today is that John Boehner is apparently making good on his promise to "clean the barn" before he leaves by cutting a budget deal with the White House. From the New York Times: "The accord would avert a potentially cataclysmic default on the government’s debt and dispense with perhaps the most divisive issue in Washington just before Speaker John A. Boehner is expected to turn over his gavel to Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin."

Then there's today's schadenfreude-ish news: House super-conservatives are sad because they don't think there's anything they can do to halt this reckless attempt to keep the government running and pay our legal debts. Reuters: "Representatives Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and Mick Mulvaney, founders of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, told Reuters in an interview that there was not enough time for House Republicans to rally around a list of demands for raising the $18.1 trillion U.S. borrowing limit."

Then there's today's bad news:

Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives' most influential conservative group told Reuters on Monday it was too late to stop an extension of the federal debt ceiling this week, but they will not hold it against the expected next House Speaker, Paul Ryan.

....The three lawmakers said they wanted to work with Ryan on process reforms that would allow them to get a much earlier start on future fiscal deadlines to demand spending cuts and reforms to federal benefits programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This way, they would not be trying to craft a strategy at the last minute with default or government shutdowns looming in the balance.

....[Mulvaney] said Ryan's first big test would be a spending bill to keep government agencies open past a current shutdown deadline of Dec. 11. This would have to produce "at least something better than we would have gotten under Mr. Boehner."

So they've given up on provoking a debt limit/government shutdown crisis for now, but by God they expect Ryan to give them enough time to provoke plenty of them in the future. And that starts in six weeks, Mr. Speaker.

The Great 1998 Chart Swindle Is Now Officially Over

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 1:37 PM EDT

One of the favorite topics in the climate change denial community is the "global warming pause." It's based on the fact that 1998 was an unusually warm year, so if you begin a climate chart in 1998 it will look as if nothing much has happened since. I made fun of this last week, but it occurs to me that we might genuinely have seen the last of that famous chart.

Why? Because it's no good anymore. David Roberts tells me today that Republicans are incensed over a recent NOAA paper that suggests the "pause" is due to mismeasurements of ocean temperatures, but who even needs that anymore? Just look at the basic numbers in the chart below. Even if you start in 1998, you can see obvious evidence of warming.

Bottom line: Even the famously deceptive 1998 chart doesn't work anymore. I suspect that we're going to see a sudden lack of interest in 1998 charts from the denialists. They'll have to move on to swindling the rubes with something else.

And if you're curious, here's an honest, plain-Jane chart of the past 50 years. The 1998 outlier is pretty obvious here, and the evidence of steady warming is pretty obvious too.