Kevin Drum

Kids Today Are No Dumber Than Their Elders

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 3:01 PM EST

One of my little pet peeves—occasionally given expression on this blog—is the notion that kids today are dumber than they used to be. I'd say that both the anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest just the opposite, but it's hard to get good comparisons since children are tested constantly while adults almost never are. Every year we hear horror stories about how few teenagers can locate France on a map, but who's to say whether adults are any better? After all, we never get the chance to herd them into classrooms and force them to tell us.

Today, however, Andrew Sullivan points me to a lovely little tidbit that I can't resist passing along. As true evidence, it's pretty much worthless. But who cares? This is a blog! If I can't draw sweeping conclusions from minuscule data here, where can I? So here it is: a YouGov survey of a thousand adults asking them six grammatical questions. The results are on the right. As you can see, every age group did about equally well. In fact, if you average all six questions, the results ranged from 75 percent correct for the youngsters to 73 percent correct for the senior citizens. That's no difference at all.

So there you have it. The kids today are all right. Or alright. Or something. In any case, their grammar appears to be every bit as good as that of their elders.

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America Is the Developed World's Second Most Ignorant Country

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 12:20 PM EST

A couple of days ago Vox ran a story about a new Ipsos-MORI poll showing that Americans think the unemployment rate right now is an astonishing 32 percent—higher than during the Great Depression. The correct answer, of course, is about 6 percent. And this is not just a harmless bit of ignorance, like not being able to name the vice president. "It matters," we're told, "because the degree to which people perceive problems guides how they make political decisions."

My first thought when I saw this is the same one I have a lot: how has this changed over time? After all, if Americans always think the unemployment rate is way higher than it is, then it doesn't mean much. But I couldn't find any previous polling data on this. I made a few desultory attempts in between football games this weekend, but came up empty.

Luckily, John Sides is a stronger man than me, and also more familiar with the past literature on this stuff. It turns out there's not very much to look at, actually, but what there is suggests that this Ipsos-MORI poll is a weird outlier. Generally, speaking, most people do know roughly what the unemployment rate is:

In this 1986 article....two-thirds, stated that the unemployment rate was 10 percent, 11 percent, or 12 percent — a substantial degree of accuracy.

In this 2014 article....approximately 40-50 percent of respondents could estimate this rate within 1 percentage point.

In this 2014 article....most respondents gave fairly accurate estimates — which is reflected in the median.

So the whole thing is a little odd. In past polls, people weren't too far off. In this one, they're off by more than 25 points. Something doesn't add up, but it's not clear what. In any case, it's worth taking this whole thing with a grain of salt.

But all is not lost. If you decide to take this poll seriously anyway, you might be interested to know that the unemployment results are merely one part of a broader report titled "Perils of Perception." Basically, it's an international survey showing just how wrong people in different countries are about things like murder rates, number of Muslims, teen birth rates, voting, and so forth. This is then compiled into a handy "Index of Ignorance."

So who's #1? Not us. We came in second to Italy. But that's not too bad! We're pretty damn ignorant, and with a little less effort we might take the top spot next year. Still, even though Germans and Swedes may feel smug about their knowledge of demographic facts, can they launch pointless wars in the Middle East whenever they feel like it? No they can't. So there.

POSTSCRIPT: On a slightly more serious note, Sides tells us that not only is the Ipsos-MORI poll an odd outlier, but that his research suggests that ignorance of the unemployment rate has very little impact on people's attitudes anyway. I'd say the Ipsos-MORI poll accidentally confirms this. The German public, for example, has a much more accurate view of the unemployment rate than the American public. So has that helped their policymaking? It has not. Over the past few years, Germany has probably had the worst economic policy of any developed country, while the US has had among the best. A well-informed public may be less important than we think.

Sunni Awakening 2.0? Don't Hold Your Breath.

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 10:57 AM EST

Back in 2007, the military success of the famous "surge" in Iraq was due largely to the fact that many Sunni tribal leaders finally turned against al-Qaeda and began cooperating with the American army. This so-called Sunni Awakening was a key part of the tenuous peace achieved a year later.

It was a fragile peace, however, and eventually it broke down thanks to the lack of a serious political effort to include Sunnis in the central government. By last year, the Sunni areas of Iraq had once again begun to rebel, and ISIS took advantage of this to storm into Iraq and take control of a huge swath of territory. If we want to regain this ground from ISIS, the first step is to once again persuade Sunni tribal leaders to cooperate with us, but it looks an awful lot like that particular playbook isn't going to work a second time:

Officials admit little success in wooing new Sunni allies, beyond their fitful efforts to arm and supply the tribes who were already fighting the Islamic State — and mostly losing. So far, distrust of the Baghdad government’s intentions and its ability to protect the tribes has won out.

....Much of the Islamic State’s success at holding Sunni areas comes from its deft manipulation of tribal dynamics. Portraying itself as a defender of Sunnis who for years have been abused by Iraq’s Shiite-majority government, the Islamic State has offered cash and arms to tribal leaders and fighters, often allowing them local autonomy as long as they remain loyal.

At the same time, as it has expanded into new towns, the Islamic State has immediately identified potential government supporters for death. Residents of areas overrun by the Islamic State say its fighters often carry names of soldiers and police officers. If those people have already fled, the jihadists blow up their homes to make sure they do not return. At checkpoints, its men sometimes run names through computerized databases, dragging off those who have worked for the government.

“They come in with a list of names and are more organized than state intelligence,” said Sheikh Naim al-Gaood, a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe. The most brutal treatment is often of tribes who cooperated with the United States against Al Qaeda in Iraq in past years, mostly through the so-called Sunni Awakening movement supported by the Americans.

Obviously ISIS may overplay its hand here, or simply overextend itself. They aren't supermen. At the same time, it's obvious that ISIS is well aware of how the original Sunni Awakening played out, and they're doing an effective job of making sure it doesn't play out that way again. Sunni leaders are already distrustful of Americans, having been promised a greater role in governance in 2007 and then seeing that promise evaporate, and ISIS leaders are adding a brutal element of revenge to make sure that no one thinks about believing similar promises this time around.

All this is not to say that things are hopeless. But a replay of the Sunni Awakening isn't going to be easy. Sunni leaders have already been burned once and were unlikely from the start to be easily persuaded to give reconciliation another chance. ISIS is reinforcing this with both deft politics and brutal retaliation against collaborators. It's not going to be an easy dynamic to break.

Why Won't Orrin Hatch Blame Republicans For the Failure of Immigration Reform?

| Sun Nov. 16, 2014 10:28 AM EST

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch cracks me up:

[Hatch] expressed concern that President Barack Obama may soon take executive action on immigration and protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. "It would be catastrophic for him to do that," said Hatch. "Part of it is our fault. We haven't really seized this problem. Of course, we haven't been in a position to do it either, with Democrats controlling the Senate. I'm not blaming Republicans. But we really haven't seized that problem and found solutions for it."

...."Frankly, I'd like to see immigration done the right way," Hatch added. "This president is prone to doing through executive order that which he cannot do by working with the Congress, because he won't work with us. If he worked with us, I think we could get an immigration bill through ... He has a Republican Congress that's willing to work with him. That's the thing that's pretty interesting to me."

You know, it was only 17 months ago that the Senate passed a vigorously negotiated and tough-minded bipartisan immigration bill that was actively supported by President Obama. You know who voted for it? Orrin Hatch. The only reason it's not the law of the land today is....Republicans in the House. That's it.

So what's the problem here? Why shouldn't we blame Republicans?

Two Important Notes For Anyone Renewing Obamacare Coverage

| Sat Nov. 15, 2014 12:17 PM EST

Today is the first day of the 2015 signup period for Obamacare. If you currently have coverage, you need to decide whether to keep the plan you have or shop around for a different one. Here are a couple of key things to keep in mind—whether you're buying coverage for yourself or know friends who are:

  • As the New York Times points out today, it's possible that the net price of your current coverage could go up substantially this year. Here's why: the size of the federal subsidy depends on the price of your plan relative to other plans. If your plan was the cheapest on offer last year, it qualified for a maximum subsidy. But if other, cheaper plans are offered this year, and your plan is now, say, only the fourth cheapest, you'll get a smaller subsidy. So even if your actual plan premium stays the same, your net cost could go up a lot.

    This is, naturally, becoming a partisan attack point, but don't ignore it just because the usual suspects are making hay with it. It's a real issue that anyone buying insurance on a state or federal exchange should be aware of.

    Bottom line: shop around. Don't just hit the renew button without checking things out.
  • Andrew Sprung has been writing tirelessly about something called Cost Sharing Reduction. It's not well known, but it could be important to you. Today, Sprung tells us that the new version of healthcare.gov has a pretty nice shoparound feature that allows you to enter some basic information and then provides a comparison of all plans in your area. I tried it myself, and sure enough, the "window shopping" feature works nicely and is easily accessible from the home page.

    However, it doesn't do a good job of steering you toward silver-level plans, which are the only ones eligible for Cost Sharing Reduction. For example, I shopped for a plan for a low-income family of three in Missouri, and the cost of the cheapest bronze plan was $0. The cost of the cheapest silver plan was $90 per month. That's an extra $1,000 per year, and a lot of low-income families will naturally gravitate toward the cheaper plan, especially since it's the first one they see.

    But the bronze plan has both a deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $12,600. The silver plan with CSR has a deductible of $2,000 and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,700. Unless you're literally rolling the dice that you're never going to see a doctor this year, you're almost certain to be better off with the silver plan, even though the up-front monthly premium is a little higher.

    Bottom line: shop around. The plan that looks cheapest often isn't, and for low-income buyers a silver plan is often your best bet. For more, here's the CSR page at healthcare.gov. And for even more, Sprung has details about shopping at the new site here and here.

I guess the bottom line is obvious by now: shop around. Even if you can navigate the website yourself, be careful. Not everything is obvious at first glance. And if you're not comfortable doing it by yourself, don't. Get help from an expert in your state. You have three months to sign up, so there's no rush.

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 2:58 PM EST

As you may recall, last week I regaled you with the news that cats (allegedly) love circles. Put a circular object on the floor, and they'll flock to it. But is this true? On Saturday, my sister visited and we performed our experiment: she laid down a scarf on the floor in a circular shape and we waited. I insisted that we do nothing to influence the cats, since that would ruin all the lovely Science™, but we didn't have to wait long. Hilbert came over first, and then Hopper followed. For the next 15 minutes they went nuts for the circle. By the time I took the picture on the right, the scarf was no longer all that circular, but it didn't matter. They loved it.

So there you have it. Cats do love circles. The reason, however, remains a mystery, so let's move on to this week's official catblogging. I've already mentioned that I have a hard time keeping up with our little furballs unless they're snoozing, so this week you get a picture of them snoozing (Hopper on the left, Hilbert on the right). I sent this to the shelter where we got them, and they thought it was hilarious. Our guys are not the kind of cats who curl up when they sleep. They stretch out as far as they can to air out their tummies, even if that means they're often hanging over the edge of a chair. But the couch is better. Even they can only fill up half a couch.

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People Who Use Obamacare Sure Do Like It

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:43 PM EST

Jonathan Cohn points us today to a Gallup poll with yet more good news for Obamacare. In a recent survey, the people who are actually using Obamacare gave it very high marks: 74 percent said the quality of health care they received was good or excellent, and 71 percent said the overall coverage was good or excellent. What's remarkable is that these numbers are nearly the same as those for everyone else with health insurance, which includes those with either employer coverage or Medicare. Here's the bottom line from Cohn:

You hear a lot about what’s wrong with the coverage available through the marketplaces and some of these criticisms are legitimate. The narrow networks of providers are confusing, for example, and lack of sufficient regulations leaves some patients unfairly on the hook for ridiculously high bills. But overall the plans turn out to be as popular as other forms of private and public insurance. It’s one more sign that, if you can just block out the negative headlines and political attacks, you’ll discover a program that is working.

Republicans can huff and puff all they want, but the evidence is clear: despite its rollout problems, Obamacare is a success. It's covering millions of people; its costs are in line with forecasts; and people who use it think highly of it. There's no such thing as a big, complex program that has no problems, and Obamacare has its share. But overall? It's a standup triple.

Wakey, Wakey! Your Life Is Wasting Away.

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:33 AM EST

Melissa Dahl points us to a Reddit conversation with Dan Ariely, a Duke professor who's an expert on time management:

Ariely: One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don't require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Q: What are those hours? I must know.

Ariely: Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.

That's a hell of a thing, isn't it? If Ariely is right, then almost by definition most of us waste the best hours of our lives. After all, by the time we eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, and commute to work, we've probably blown away the first 60-90 minutes of the day. And then, as Ariely says, we waste the next half hour chatting or checking email or working at some other low-priority task.

But not me! Mostly for time zone reasons, my habit for a while has been to wake up and come straight to the computer. After I get caught up on the news and write my first post, I eat a quick breakfast. Then I come back and keep blogging. My first two hours are consumed almost entirely by work.

So does that mean that my first two or three posts of the day are generally my best ones? I've never thought so. In fact, they're usually fairly short items. Later, as I engage more fully with the news of the day and the reactions of other bloggers, I start to write more substantive stuff. That's how it's always seemed, anyway. But maybe I'm wrong. What says the hive mind?

In any case, I have a doctor's appointment this morning (chemo round 4, only 12 to go!), so I shall sadly be wasting my most productive hours. On the bright side, the medical staff will presumably be at its peak. That's not a bad tradeoff, I guess. See you on the other side.

A Wee Caution About the Success of the Renewable Energy Loan Program

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:48 AM EST

This dispatch from Bloomberg got a lot of attention yesterday:

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

I think the gist of this report is almost certainly correct. The faux outrage over Solyndra back in 2011 was entirely manufactured for partisan reasons, and there was never any real reason to think that Solyndra's bankruptcy represented a broader failure of the loan program. Quite the opposite. Any loan guarantee program is not only going to have failures, it's going to expect failures. Solyndra just happened to be one of them.

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately, saying in its press release that "The best perspective for assessing LPO’s financial performance is to look at the portfolio in its entirety." Maybe so. But before I declare success, I'd still like to see how well the 1705 program is doing on its own. That would be a fairer representation of how well things are going in the piece of this program that's truly dedicated to risky new renewable energy projects.

Elizabeth Warren Gets a Promotion -- Or Does She?

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 4:51 PM EST

Elizabeth Warren is getting a promotion:

Seeking ideological and regional balance, a chastened Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expanded his leadership team Thursday, including the addition of liberal icon Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to beat back internal critics.....Expanding the leadership table — Warren's position was created specifically for her — is a way to answer the critics who think that Reid's team became insulated in recent years, according to senior Democratic aides.

I'm curious: Am I the only person who thinks this is probably not a great move for Warren? She's now officially part of the Democratic leadership, which makes her implicitly responsible for party policy and implicitly loyal to the existing leadership. And what is she getting in return? Unless I'm missing something, a made-up leadership position with no actual authority.

Is this a good trade? I'm not so sure.