Kevin Drum

Drum vs. Cowen: Three Laws

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

Today Tyler Cowen published his version of Cowen's Three Laws:

1. Cowen’s First Law: There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it)

2. Cowen’s Second Law: There is a literature on everything.

3. Cowen’s Third Law: All propositions about real interest rates are wrong.

I'd phrase these somewhat differently:

1. Drum's First Law: For any any problem complex enough to be interesting, there is evidence pointing in multiple directions. You will never find a case where literally every research result supports either liberal or conservative orthodoxy.

2. Drum's Second Law: There's literature on a lot of things, but with some surprising gaps. Furthermore, in many cases the literature is so contradictory and ambiguous as to be almost useless in practical terms.

3. Drum's Third Law: Really? Isn't there a correlation between real interest rates and future inflationary expectations? In general, don't low real interest rates make capital investment more likely by lowering hurdle rates? Or am I just being naive here?

In any case, you can take your choice. Or mix and match!

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Senate's Iran Bill Probably Not a Bad Idea After All

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 10:44 AM EDT

President Obama has said that he's willing to sign the latest Senate version of a bill that gives Congress a say in any nuclear deal with Iran. I'm glad to hear that because, oddly enough, I'm pretty much in favor of the current bill. Here's why:

  • Congress should be involved in major arms treaties, regardless of whether my preferred party happens to control Congress.
  • The current bill requires Congress to vote on a final deal within 30 days. No one expects a treaty to get implemented any sooner than that anyway, so it's not much of a roadblock.
  • If Congress disapproves the deal, the president can issue a veto. It would then take two-thirds of the Senate to override the veto and kill the treaty.

I don't see much of a downside to this. If Obama can't get even one-third of the Senate to go along with his Iran deal, then it probably doesn't deserve to be approved. And the threat of a suspicious and recalcitrant Congress going over the treaty language word by word might actually motivate Iran to agree to more straightforward language in the final document. It certainly shouldn't doom the negotiations or anything like that.

A lot of this is political theater, and a lot of it is pure Israel-lobby muscle at work. Still, I suspect it does little harm and might even do a little good. And setting out the parameters of the Senate vote beforehand is probably all for the good. This isn't a bad bill.

Driving While Black Has Actually Gotten More Dangerous in the Last 15 Years

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 9:50 AM EDT

Walter Scott's death in South Carolina, at the hands of now-fired North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, is one of several instances from the past year when a black man was killed after being pulled over while driving. No one knows exactly how often traffic stops turn deadly, but studies in Arizona, Missouri, Texas, Washington have consistently shown that cops stop and search black drivers at a higher rate than white drivers. Last week, a team of researchers in North Carolina found that traffic stops in Charlotte, the state's largest city, showed a similar racial disparity—and that the gap has been widening over time.

The researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed more than 1.3 million traffic stops and searches by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers for a 12-year period beginning in 2002, when the state began requiring police to collect such statistics. In their analysis of the data, collected and made public by the state's Department of Justice, the researchers found that black drivers, despite making up less than one-third of the city's driving population, were twice as likely to be subject to traffic stops and searches as whites. Young black men in Charlotte were three times as likely to get pulled over and searched than the city-wide average. Here's a chart from the Charlotte Observer's report detailing the findings:

Michael Gordon and David Puckett, Charlotte Observer

Not only did the researchers identify these gaps: they showed that the gaps have been growing. Black drivers in Charlotte are more likely than whites to get pulled over and searched today than they were in 2002, the researchers found. They noted similar widening racial gaps among traffic stops and searches in Durham, Raleigh, and elsewhere in the state.

Black drivers in Charlotte were much more likely to get stopped for minor violations involving seat belts, vehicle registration, and equipment, where, as the Observer's Michael Gordon points out, "police have more discretion in pulling someone over." (Scott was stopped in North Charleston due to a broken brake light.) White drivers, meanwhile, were stopped more often for obvious safety violations, such as speeding, running red lights and stop signs, and driving under the influence. Still, black drivers—except those suspected of intoxicated driving—were always more likely to get searched than whites, no matter the reason for the stop.

The findings in North Carolina echo those of a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Kansas, who found that Kansas City's black drivers were stopped at nearly three times the rate of whites fingered for similarly minor violations.

Frank Baumgartner, the lead author of the UNC-Chapel Hill study, told Mother Jones that officers throughout the state were twice as likely to use force against black drivers than white drivers. Of the estimated 18 million stops that took place between 2002 and 2013 in North Carolina that were analyzed by Baumgartner's team, less than one percent involved the use of force. While officers are required to report whether force was encountered or deployed, and whether there were any injuries, "we don't know if the injuries are serious, and we don't know if a gun was fired," he says.

Republicans Like Class Warfare—So Long As It's Against Hillary Clinton

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 4:18 PM EDT

How do you go about redefining Hillary Clinton? As one of the most well-known political figures in modern history, just about everyone in America already has a opinion of her.

After months in the lab and out in the field polling voters and testing messages, Republicans believe they have the answer they need to help prevent another four years of a Democratic presidency. As Politico reports today, the GOP plans to depict Clinton as an out-of-touch one-percenter, who doesn't drive her own car or pump her own gas, who owns multiple large houses and commanded a six-figure fee for her pre-campaign speaking gigs, who can't grasp the daily life of a working-class family. As Politico's Eli Stokols puts it, the GOP plans to "Mitt Romnify" Clinton:

The out-of-touch plutocrat template is a familiar one: Democrats used it to devastating effect against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. While Hillary Clinton's residences in New York and Washington may not have car elevators, there's still a lengthy trail of paid speeches, tone-deaf statements about the family finances, and questions about Clinton family foundation fundraising practices that will serve as cornerstones of the anti-Clinton messaging effort.

"She's admitted she hasn't driven a car for decades; she probably doesn't ever go into a coffee shop and talk to regular people unless it's for a staged photo-op," said American Crossroads CEO Steven Law, alluding to Clinton's portrayal in her campaign's launch video on Sunday. "She really has lived the life of a 1-percenter these last several years, and it shows.

"We know her team is working to rebrand her as a relatable, regular person; the question is, can she actually perform in a way that convinces people she is that person? We think that's going to be hard for her."

The outlines of the effort to Mitt Romnify Hillary Clinton are still being sketched. Crossroads, the super PAC that spent $70 million in 2012 mostly on television ads attacking President Barack Obama, is in the middle of an extensive research project analyzing voters' existing perceptions of Clinton and their reactions to a number of potential critiques. But the Republican National Committee has done focus groups that suggest Clinton is more vulnerable to charges of being imperious and bending the rules than anything else tested against her.

"The most potent message against Clinton is that she doesn't live an average life, she's out of touch and doesn't play by the same set of rules," said the RNC's research director, Raj Shah. "[T]hat resonates more deeply than some of the policy hits, the ethical hits."

Soon after Stokols' story was published, Crossroads GPS, the GOP establishment's leading dark-money group, released its own polling data from 15 battleground states highlighting what it called Clinton's "major hurdles." Based on a poll of one thousand likely voters conducted in late March, Crossroads found that 95 percent of respondents had a fully formed opinion of Clinton; her popularity was evenly split, with 49 percent favoring her and 46 percent opposing. Crossroads also claims that some of the "most potent concerns" voiced by respondents were Clinton's "record of scandals" at the State Department, as well as doubts that the former first lady "is honest and trustworthy."

The data here aren't that surprising—after all, this was a poll commissioned by a Republican shop. But what caught my eye was Crossroads founder Steven Law's statement in the press release accompanying his group's findings: "A staged van tour," he said, "can't erase the legacy of scandals and luxury lifestyle that are ingrained in Americans' view of who Hillary really is." Right there Law shows his hand—luxury lifestyle. That's on top of his "one-percenter" jab to Politico.

In other words, get ready for 18 months of ominous, grimly narrated attack ads about out-of-touch plutocrats and the lifestyles of the rich and politically famous. Except this time the target isn't Mitt Romney; it's Clinton, the Democrat trying to run as the "champion" of "everyday Americans."

Hair Update

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 12:35 PM EDT

Huh. My hair is starting to fall out in clumps. That's not supposed to happen until after the chemo next week. I wonder what's going on?

Worst. Logo. Ever.

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 11:45 AM EDT

I've kept my distance from the nearly insane volume of reaction to Hillary Clinton's presidential announcement this weekend, including the tens of thousands of turgid words deconstructing her allegedly revolutionary announcement video. (Please.) It's a routine announcement, folks. We all knew it was coming. We all knew approximately what she'd say.

What's more, I nearly always stay out of discussions about logos. I have no artistic sense, so who am I to judge? And yet....holy cow. I have to go along with the nearly unanimous stunned reaction to Hillary's campaign logo. It's hideous on so many levels it's hard to even marshal my thoughts about it. Seriously, WTF were they thinking?

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No, the Poor Are Not Squandering Public Money on Filet Mignon

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 10:53 AM EDT

Are the poor blowing their food stamps in wild bacchanalias of filet mignon and lobster thermidor? Is this something that we ought to keep a closer look on as protectors of the public purse?

You can probably figure out the answer already, but, um, no. Here are some relevant monthly figures for food spending among the poor, as collected by the Consumer Expenditure Survey:

  • Meat and fish: $48
  • Fruits and vegetables: $42
  • Alcohol: $15

Pretty obviously, there's a lot more baloney and chicken breasts here than steak and lobster. And this doesn't change a lot as you move up the income scale. The numbers above are for the poorest tenth of consumers, but they stay about the same even when you move slightly up the income ladder. The entire poorest third spends only about $323 total on food per month.

Should we encourage better nutrition and better food choices among the poor? Less McDonald's and more broccoli? For all sorts of reasons, of course we should. But should we be worried that public money is being squandered on prime rib or fresh Pacific swordfish? Nope. There's just no evidence that it's happening except as the occasional scary anecdote. It's a non-problem.

Max Ehrenfreund has more details here if you want some comparisons between rich and poor in various categories of consumer expenditures.

Half of Emails Are Answered in 47 Minutes or Less

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Many people seem to agree that email sucks, and almost as many of us are annoyed by "inbox zero" coworkers telling everybody in earshot how damn productive they are. We get it.

But while we all agree that email is slow, tedious, annoying, and perhaps impersonal, it turns out that many of us are actually pretty decent at returning the messages we need to. According to a new study by the folks at Yahoo Labs on how quickly emails get answered, about 90 percent of emails are returned within a day. In fact, half of emails are answered within 47 minutes, with the most likely return time being just about two minutes. (Of course many of those replies are short, coming in at about five words.)

The study—which, as the largest ever of its kind, analyzed more than 16 billion email messages sent between 2 million (randomized and opt-in) Yahoo! email users over a several month period—went a little deeper than reply times. It also studied how extended email threads play out (the longer the thread, the quicker the replies come until there's a measurable pause before a concluding message); what time of day is best for getting a long response (morning); and demographics. Teens work the reply button the fastest, with a median reply time of about 13 minutes. Adults 20 to 35 years old came in at about 16 minutes. Adults aged 36 to 50 took about 24 minutes, and "mature" adults, aged 51 and over, took the longest at about 47 minutes. Gender seems to make less of a difference than age, with males replying in about 24 minutes and women taking about 28 (insert joke about women being more thoughtful here).

As you might expect, all those numbers go out the window when an attachment is involved: it takes emailers almost twice the time to respond to messages containing additional files. Another not-so-surprising tidbit from the study suggests that we're quickest to reply from our phones, then our tablets, and finally our desktops. And predictably the more emails you get, the fewer you actually respond to: the data indicates that people receiving 100 emails a day may answer just five.

Today's Republican Dilemma: Who Do They Hate More, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 12:43 AM EDT

Here's the latest from our pal in Russia:

President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday approved the delivery of a sophisticated air defense missile system to Iran, potentially complicating negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program and further straining ties with Washington.

The sale could also undermine the Obama administration’s efforts to sell Congress and foreign allies on the nuclear deal, which Iran and the United States are still struggling to complete. It might also reduce the United States’ leverage in the talks by making it much harder for the United States or Israel to mount airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure if the country ignored such an agreement.

Well, there you have it: Putin is eager to undermine any possibility of a US nuclear deal with Iran. This gives Republicans a choice: they can side with Putin or they can side with Barack Obama.

Decisions, decisions. I wonder what they'll choose?

Chart of the Day: Yet More Good News For Obamacare

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 8:32 PM EDT

During Obamacare's initial open enrollment period, the uninsured rate dropped dramatically. Then it leveled out a bit when enrollment closed. So how are things going in its second year?

The latest Gallup numbers tell the story. During the first month of open enrollment, the uninsured rate dropped moderately, and then dropped sharply again during the first quarter of 2015. It's now down to 11.9 percent:

This is great news, and confirms previous reports. As before, according to Gallup, the biggest drops have been among the young and those with low incomes. This represents millions of people who can now get decent medical care without fear of bankruptcy, and it's being done at a surprisingly moderate cost. It's just inconceivable to me why Republicans are so hellbent on ruining a program that's showing such great results and such great promise for so many people.