Kevin Drum

Missing the Point With Statistics

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 5:52 PM EDT

I just caught a few minutes of the Brazil-Croatia World Cup opener ("patient possession football" said the announcer, which apparently means kinda slow and humdrum), and before I knew it, it was halftime. So I switched over to CNN to see if anything was going on, and caught a pretty good example of how to miss the point with statistics. The chart at issue is on the right. According to James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, mass shootings aren't on the rise, even though it might seem that they are. But there's something missing from this analysis, and regular readers who know my hobbyhorses should be able to guess what it is.

Is it the fact that the yellow line does, in fact, seem to be rising steadily? No. An eyeball analysis suggests that it is, but it's not a big rise, and anyway, it's probably accounted for by population growth.

Nope, it's this: Since 1993, the rate of violent crime in America has plummeted by half. That's the background to measure this against. In general, America has become a much safer, much less lethal place, and yet mass shootings have remained steady. Compared to the background rate of violent crime, mass shootings have doubled. Why?

And here's an equally interesting question: between 1976 and 1993, violent crime increased by a significant amount, but mass shootings remained steady. Again, why?

Raw numbers are a starting point, but they don't tell the whole story. If Americans, on average, are considerably less violent than they were 20 years ago, shouldn't mass shootings be down? The answer presumably, is that mass shootings are actually up when you measure them correctly, or else that mass shootings have nothing to do with violent tendencies in general. My guess is the latter, and it would be genuinely interesting to hear from experts about why this is.

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Iraq's Problems Are Not Ones That America Can Solve

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 2:56 PM EDT

One of the things that liberals chattered about endlessly in the latter stages of the Iraq War—and which seemed to annoy conservatives just as endlessly—was the simple claim that Iraq's problems were fundamentally political, not military. There would be no lasting peace in Iraq unless and until there was a political accommodation between the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni—especially the latter two. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed completely uninterested in reaching any sort of genuine power-sharing agreement with the Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq in Saddam's day, and no amount of cajoling from Americans swayed him even a little. Without that, any kind of durable peace in Iraq was out of reach, so it made sense for us to leave in 2011. Why remain when there was little we could do that would truly make a difference?

This is why our withdrawal from Iraq is no more than a tiny peripheral factor in the growing jihadist Sunni rebellion that's overwhelming Iraq right now. Ditto for our reluctance to arm "moderates" in the Syrian civil war. Laying the blame there is mostly just a tired but convenient talking point for the Fox News set and the dwindling but noisy band of unrepentant neocons. Marc Lynch takes up the story from there:

The more interesting questions are about Iraq itself. Why are these cities falling virtually without a fight? Why are so many Iraqi Sunnis seemingly pleased to welcome the takeover from the Iraqi government by a truly extremist group with which they have a long, violent history?

....The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq. In late 2012, protests had swelled across Sunni areas of Iraq, driven by genuine popular anger but backed by many of the political forces now reportedly cooperating with ISIS’s advance (essential background here). The vicious assault on the Huwija protest camp by Iraqi security forces, in the midst of political negotiations, galvanized hostility to the Iraqi state and paved the way for growing popular support for a returning insurgency. Maliki’s heavy-handed security response to the escalating insurgency across Anbar, including the bombardment of Fallujah, has predictably driven more and more Sunnis into their ranks. Maliki’s purges of the Sunni leadership discredited or removed Sunni leaders willing to play the inside game, and pushed some of them toward supporting insurgency. His exclusionary policies, attempts to monopolize power and rough security practices radicalized a Sunni community that might have been brought into the system following the civil war. Iraq’s political class as a whole has done little better.

Lynch offers a few additional thoughts on whether Maliki is likely to change course in the face of the threat from ISIS insurgents. So far, it doesn't seem likely. And as long as that's true, there's little reason that America should get involved in Iraq's ongoing sectarian war yet again.

Living in the World That Fox News Built

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 12:32 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan made the mistake of spending an evening watching Fox News:

Here’s the gist: the president is a lawless dictator, abetting America’s Islamist foes around the world, releasing Taliban prisoners to aid in his own jihad on America, fomenting a new caliphate in Iraq, and encouraging children to rush the Mexican border to up his vote-count, while effectively leaving those borders open to achieve his “fundamental transformation of America.”

I watched Megyn Kelly, who is regarded as more centrist than Sean Hannity. You could have fooled me. The guests were Brent Bozell, far right veteran, and Andy McCarthy, pro-torture activist touting his book calling for Obama’s impeachment. The only pushback Kelly provided to a relentless stream of hysteria was to ask whether the president sincerely wanted another terror attack on America — since it would hurt his approval ratings. And that provided the only qualification to the picture of a Jihadist in the White House determined to destroy the America he loathes.

That's classic. Hey guys. We all know Obama's an empty suit who only cares about his poll standings. Amirite? So maybe he's opposed to terror attacks on America after all. You know, just to keep his approval ratings up.

I wish I had something really insightful to say about this, because for all the attention it gets, it still deserves more. Over the years, the more that I've thought about the evolution of conservative politics over the past few decades, the more I become convinced that Fox News is really at the center of it. Sure, it all started with a base of Reagan and the Christian Right and talk radio and the Republican takeover of the South. But Newt Gingrich was the game changer. He's the one who brought conservative politics to a truly new, truly unprecedented level of toxic rancor.

Here's the thing, though: As critical as Gingrich was, he lasted only a few years before flaming out and becoming a historical footnote. It was Fox News that became the ongoing, institutional expression of Gingrichism. The Republican Party would have turned right in any case, but without Fox I'm just not sure Gingrichism would ever have developed a critical mass. Without Fox, our politics never would have gotten so astonishingly toxic that a significant fraction of the nation—not just a fringe—honestly believes that we have a lawless, America-hating tyrant in the White House who's literally committed himself to destroying the country from both within and without.

Yes, the tea party has won. But it won because of support from Fox News. In reality, it's Fox News that won. And for all that Fox gets a lot of attention, I still wonder how many non-conservatives really watch it. Not just the occasional clip on Jon Stewart or Media Matters that's good for a laugh or an eye roll. How many really sit down occasionally and take in a full evening? Or a whole day? Because that's the only way you'll really understand.

Immigration Reform Is Dead, and That's Still a Big Problem for the Republican Party

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

I got into an email argument with Greg Sargent yesterday over my belief that immigration reform has been "dead" for months and remains dead following Eric Cantor's primary defeat. His view is a little more nuanced: it could pass anytime John Boehner allows it to come up for a vote, so it's not really right to simply call it dead. As it happens, that strikes me as a distinction with barely a difference. The bulk of the Republican Party is dead set against immigration reform, and no party leader is going to buck that. In every practical, political sense, then, it's dead. And since this is my blog, I get the last word.

However, one of the fundamental issues here is the size and intensity of the pro-immigration wing of the GOP. This includes business interests, law enforcement, evangelicals, etc., and my take is that they have neither size nor, especially, intensity on this issue. That's why immigration reform has gone nowhere. But there is one other pro-immigration faction that matters: the party establishment, which believes that unless they do something to win back a share of the Latino vote, they're doomed forever in presidential contests. But how scared are they of this? And how scared should they be?

A new report from the Center for American Progress suggests they're pretty justified in being scared. Immigration reform is an especially salient voting topic for first- and second-generation immigrants, and that group has two important characteristics: (a) it's growing as a share of the Latino population, and (b) it's turning out to vote in ever higher numbers:

Republicans may be able to hold onto Congress for a while longer in the face of numbers like these, but winning the presidency is going to get harder and harder. Not impossible. But that's a mighty big headwind, and it's getting stronger every year.

The System Worked

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 10:38 AM EDT

Dan Drezner says the system worked:

The initial shock of the 2008 financial crisis was worse than what happened in 1929, and yet we didn't experience another Great Depression. Outside the developed world, the global economy has actually done remarkably well. That's the interesting story, as far as I'm concerned.

This is true. It didn't work perfectly, or even as well as it should have. But it worked. What's more, you can make a pretty good case that the United States did a better job—or, at a minimum, as good a job—as any other major region in the world. We could have done a lot better if we had been plagued by fewer of what Keynes famously called "slaves of some defunct economist," but still. It's worth celebrating that for all the mistakes we made, we really have learned a lot, and we really are able to handle global economic meltdowns a lot better than in the past.

Can You Guess When Violent Crime in Our Schools Peaked?

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 8:52 PM EDT

Via Tim Lee, here's a pretty interesting chart from a newly released report on crime in schools. It shows the rate of violent crime committed on campus: rape, robbery, assault, and sexual assault.1 And it sure looks pretty familiar, doesn't it? It peaks in 1993, about 18 years after leaded gasoline started being phased out in 1975, then turned down and continued declining for the next 20 years.

Since the oldest students in our schools are 18 years old, the crime rate should start to flatten out approximately 18 years after the final elimination of leaded gasoline in 1995. That would be 2013. And so far, it looks like that's about what's happening.

All the usual caveats apply. This isn't proof, it's just a data point. But it's a pretty compelling data point, isn't it?

1Homicide isn't included, but the homicide rate in schools is so low that it doesn't affect these figures noticeably.

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No, Staying in Iraq Wouldn't Have Changed Anything

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 3:59 PM EDT

Iraq is close to being overthrown by a small Sunni insurgent force:

Sunni militants who overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces crumbled in disarray extended their reach in a lightning advance on Wednesday, pressing south toward Baghdad....By late Wednesday there were unconfirmed reports that the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad.

So how did this happen?

Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers — roughly 30,000 men — simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.

Senior government officials in Baghdad were equally shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq's borders.

The developments seriously undermine US claims to have established a unified and competent military after more than a decade of training. The US invasion and occupation cost Washington close to a trillion dollars and the lives of more than 4,500 of its soldiers. It is also thought to have killed at least 100,000 Iraqis.

This is one of those Rorschach developments, where all of us are going to claim vindication for our previously-held points of view. The hawks will claim this is all the fault of President Obama, who was unable to negotiate a continuing presence of US troops after our withdrawal three years ago. Critics of the war will claim that this shows Iraq was never stable enough to defend regardless of the size of the residual American presence.

And sure enough, I'm going to play to type. I find it fantastical that anyone could read about what's happening and continue to believe that a small US presence in Iraq could ever have been more than a Band-Aid. I mean, just read the report. Two divisions of Iraqi soldiers turned tail in the face of 800 insurgents. That's what we got after a decade of American training. How can you possibly believe that another few years would have made more than a paper-thin difference? Like it or not, the plain fact is that Iraq is too fundamentally unstable to be rebuilt by American military force. We could put fingers in the dikes, but not much more.

Max Boot, of course, believes just the opposite, and I might as well just quote myself from a few weeks ago on that score:

I'm endlessly flummoxed by the attitude of guys like Boot. After ten years—ten years!—of postwar "peacekeeping" in Iraq, does he still seriously think that keeping a few thousand American advisors in Baghdad for yet another few years would have made a serious difference there? In Kosovo there was a peace to keep. It was fragile, sure, but it was there. In Iraq it wasn't. The ethnic fault lines hadn't changed a whit, and American influence over Nouri al-Maliki had shrunk to virtually nothing. We had spent a decade trying to change the fundamentals of Iraqi politics and we couldn't do it. An endless succession of counterterrorism initiatives didn't do it; hundreds of billions of dollars in civil aid didn't do it; and despite some mythologizing to the contrary, the surge didn't do it either. The truth is that we couldn't even make a dent. What sort of grand delusion would persuade anyone that yet another decade might do the trick?

If we committed US troops to every major trouble spot in the Mideast, we'd have troops in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Lots of troops. The hawks won't admit this outright, but that's what their rhetoric implies. They simply refuse to believe the obvious: that America doesn't have that much leverage over what's happening in the region. Small commitments of trainers and arms won't make more than a speck of difference. Big commitments are unsustainable. And the US military still doesn't know how to successfully fight a counterinsurgency. (That's no knock on the Pentagon, really. No one else knows how to fight a counterinsurgency either.)

This is painfully hard for Americans to accept, but sometimes you can't just send in the Marines. Iraq may not have been Vietnam 2.0, but there was certainly one similarity: military success against an insurgent force has a chance of succeeding only if we're partnered with a stable, competent, popular, legitimate national government. We didn't have that in Vietnam, and that made victory impossible. We don't have it anywhere in the Mideast either. For better or worse, the opposing sides there are going to have to fight things out on their own. This isn't cynicism or fatalism. It's just reality.

Medicare Costs Well Under Control So Far in 2014

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 12:23 PM EDT

Health care costs have increased sharply over the past few quarters, causing a lot of hand-wringing despite the fact that it's probably due to an entirely predictable cause: higher utilization of the health care system thanks to Obamacare. Still, we don't know that for sure. Maybe there's also an underlying rebound in medical inflation that spells trouble down the road.

We probably won't know for sure for years, but today the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released a data point that suggests underlying costs remain well controlled. The Medicare system has 3.8 percent more beneficiaries than last year, but underlying costs have increased only 2.5 percent:

Adjusted for timing shifts, Medicare growth is even lower through eight months at just 0.3 percent. And even after removing the effects of temporary policies, year-to-date Medicare growth remains extremely low at 2.5 percent, even lower than through April. This is more than a full percentage point below economic and beneficiary growth, meaning that even excluding one-time effects, Medicare spending is on pace to both fall as a percent of GDP and on a per-capita basis.

It's just a single data point. But it's definitely pointing in the right direction.

UPDATE: Peter Orszag tweets a follow-up:

All true, except even reported Q1 acceleration for total (red) may be revised now that we have real #s (blue).

Orszag's chart is below, with PCE medical inflation in red and the actual change in total health care spending in blue. Normally the two trend lines track each other fairly well, but they diverged dramatically in late 2013. This suggests that the medical inflation number may be revised downward once actual health care spending is taken into account.

Maybe Eric Cantor Didn't Lose Because of Immigration Reform After All

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

The conventional wisdom says that Eric Cantor lost his primary race last night because he was soft on immigration. But a PPP poll suggests that's not really the case:

About 72 percent of registered voters in Cantor’s district polled on Tuesday said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring those here illegally, and allow undocumented residents without criminal backgrounds to gain legal status....Looking just at Republicans in Cantor’s district, the poll found that 70 percent of GOP registered voters would support such a plan, while 27 percent would oppose.

Now, "registered voters" is not the same thing as "people who actually bothered to vote in a primary." And things like question wording can have an outsized impact on questions like this.

Still, even after months of anti-immigration blathering from talking heads, it still probably wasn't a big deal to more than about half the primary voters in Cantor's district. And despite the demagoguery from these talking heads, it's not as if Cantor was really all that soft on immigration. The worst you could honestly say about him on the subject is that he occasionally made a few noises suggesting that maybe a deal could be had if only Democrats would be reasonable. This is boilerplate stuff for Republican leaders, and we all know what it means: no deal is possible and it's all the fault of the Democrats.

In any case, there are a zillion theories about why Cantor really lost, and I'm not taking sides. But at the very least, immigration appears to be less of a factor than it seems on the surface.

Not that it matters. Immigration reform has been dead for months, and now it's still dead. Nothing has changed.

The Grim Case for Scottish Independence

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 11:00 AM EDT

Charlie Stross has a very, very grim assessment of England's future:

The worst case outcome, circa 2017, is that Scotland remains manacled to an England that has voted in a government of the Home Counties, who despise the Scots, and who have successfully campaigned for a referendum in which the English protest vote determines that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU in a vain attempt to wind the clock back to an imaginary vision of a 1950s conservative utopia that never was. Or Scotland might remain part of a UK, but one where when push came to shove the racist right took a kicking in the 2015 election and the softer right wing government of New Labour is back in charge and the loons are exiled to the fringes again, and the country is at least open for business.

Which brings me to the punch-line: I'll be voting "yes" for an independence Scotland in September. Not with great enthusiasm....but because everything I see around me suggests that there is some very bad craziness in the near future of England, and I don't want the little country I live in to be dragged down the rabbit hole by the same dark forces of reaction that are cropping up across Europe, from Hungary to Greece. The failure modes of democracy, it seems to me, are less damaging the smaller the democracy.

From thousands of miles away, things don't seem nearly so bad to me. UKIP seems unlikely to thrive in the long term, and separation from the EU strikes me as fantastically unlikely, regardless of the usual up-and-down cycles in opinion polls. And yet, what do I know? I've spent a grand total of about a week there in the last decade. Is Charlie's ultra-bleak view of England's political future more widespread than I think? Comments?