Kevin Drum

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?

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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.

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.

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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.

Chart of the Day: Vaccinate Your Kids!

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 2:02 PM EST

Via the LA Times from a few months ago, here's the rise in "personal belief" exemptions from state-mandated vaccinations among kindergartners in California:

And here's where it's happening:

In Los Angeles County, the rise in personal belief exemptions is most prominent in wealthy coastal and mountain communities, The Times analysis shows. The more than 150 schools with exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one vaccine were located in census tracts where the incomes averaged $94,500 — nearly 60% higher than the county median.

....At Santa Cruz Montessori in the small coastal community of Aptos, about 7% of kindergartners in 2007 got belief exemptions. Last fall, that rate was 22.6%. Principal Kathy Rideout said the school has tried different approaches to encourage parents to immunize children. They asked a doctor to talk with fellow parents. They produced handouts emphasizing the importance of immunizations and asked parents seeking belief exemptions to get counseling from a healthcare practitioner. A state law that went into effect this year makes this a requirement. But none of it made much difference, Rideout said.

...."We have schools in California where the percent of children who exercise the personal belief exemption is well above 50%," said Dr. Gil Chavez, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health's Center for Infectious Diseases. "That's going to be a challenge for any disease that is vaccine preventable."

There are times when it's appropriate to be skeptical of authority. This really isn't one of them. "Big Vaccine" is not an issue in American life. Childhood vaccination is just a matter of public health that no one has any real motivation to lie about. Please don't get sucked into this maelstrom. Get your kids vaccinated.

Defending Free Speech Doesn't Require Solidarity With the Speech Itself

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 1:28 PM EST

A couple of days ago, I had in mind a follow-up post about the point that defense of free speech doesn't necessarily demand "solidarity" with the speech itself. This is obvious. If an extremist gay rights lunatic murdered a dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church, would we all start showily plastering "God Hates Fags" on our websites? The question answers itself. There might a few photos showing WBC members sporting the phrase because there's some news value in making it clear what sparked the attacks, but that would be it.

Anyway, I didn't do it. The only way to make the point was to choose something deliberately and revoltingly offensive, so I backed off. But Glenn Greenwald didn't:

This week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show “solidarity” with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. “The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,” announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens....But no matter. Their cartoons were noble and should be celebrated — not just on free speech grounds but for their content. In a column entitled “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times’ Ross Douthat argued that “the right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order” and “that kind of blasphemy [that provokes violence] is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait actually proclaimed that “one cannot defend the right [to blaspheme] without defending the practice.”

....It is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights....When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim commentary (and cartoons) are a dime a dozen in western media outlets.

I don't agree with everything Greenwald says in his post. In particular, I think he really does downplay the disparity in both the number and virulence of terrorist attacks by radical Islamic groups compared to other groups. Like it or not, that makes a difference. He also would have been well-served by reprinting more than just anti-Semitic cartoons. Nonetheless, he makes his point vigorously, as usual, including a refresher of the evidence that terrorist violence is hardly limited to radical Islamists.

I am, I confess, conflicted about this. There is value in solidarity in the face of such a hideous attack. Still, although refusing to publish out of fear is plainly wrong—this is hardly a controversial point—letting a terrorist attack provoke an overreaction is a dubious response as well. For this reason, Greenwald's piece is worth reading in full even if, in the end, you think he's wrong. Maybe even especially if you think he's wrong.

Unemployment Is Low, But It Can Still Go a Lot Lower — And It Should

| Sat Jan. 10, 2015 10:25 AM EST

Justin Wolfers makes a good point today. There's a concept in economics called NAIRU, which rather awkwardly stands for the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment1. Basically it means that there's a "natural" rate of unemployment in the economy2, and if you go below it then inflation will start to accelerate. When that happens, the Fed raises interest rates to slow down growth before inflation gets out of hand.

But what's the actual value of NAIRU? Based on past experience, most economists think it's around 5.5 percent or so—which happens to be where we are now. And yet, inflation is still very low, and definitely not accelerating. This could be just a temporary phenomenon as we recover from a huge balance-sheet recession, or it could be something more permanent. For two reasons, my guess is that it's mostly the latter. First, inflation has been steadily dropping for 30 years in the US, and there's some reason to think that it's the 70s that were a high-inflation anomaly, not the rest of the low-inflation 20th century. Second, there's reason to think that the headline unemployment rate is not measuring quite the same thing as it used to. If you look at long-term unemployment, marginally attached workers, and the decline of the labor force participation ratio—which has been falling for 15 years now—it appears that a headline rate of 5.5 percent probably implies more slack in the economy than it used to. Here's Wolfers on the natural rate of unemployment:

The problem, though, is that no one really knows what that rate is. Our uncertainty is even greater today than it normally is, because no one knows the extent to which those workers who dropped out of the labor force in response to the financial crisis will return when jobs become plentiful. By this view, today’s most important macroeconomic question is what the natural rate actually is.

The latest jobs report helps answer this question. The unemployment rate has fallen to 5.6 percent, and there are still no signs that wage inflation is rising. Indeed, with wage growth running at only 1.7 percent, the economy is telling us that we still have the ability to bring many more of the jobless back into the fold without setting off inflation.

It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned that the labor market is generating cost pressures that might raise inflation. So the latest wage growth numbers suggest that we are not yet near the natural rate. And that means the Fed should be content to let the recovery continue to generate more new jobs.

There's one more thing to add: Even when unemployment falls to around 4 percent, we should remain cautious. We've tolerated an inflation rate that's under the Fed's 2 percent target for the past five years. There's no reason we shouldn't tolerate a catch-up inflation rate that's a little over the Fed's target as we begin to recover. If inflation runs at 3-4 percent for the next five years, it's probably a good thing, not a bad one.

1Obviously economists could have used a branding expert to help them with this. On the other hand, if they'd done that we might have ended up with Xarelxo or JobsMax™. In any case, we're stuck with it for now.

2The idea here is that even a thriving economy has a certain amount of natural unemployment as people leave their jobs and move to new ones—because new sectors pop up, old companies go out of business, etc. That's a good thing and a perfectly natural one in a competitive economy that's producing lots of innovation. Trying to push unemployment lower than the natural rate is basically fruitless.