Kevin Drum

The Kids These Days Know More Than You Probably Think

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

When I write about American education, the background implication is usually simple: kids these days are dumber than they used to be. Schools are bad; the children are slackers; and the Chinese are going to destroy us. Frankly, I doubt this. It may be true that most 17-year-olds can't locate France on a map, but I'll bet most adults can't either. They just never get tested to find out.

The Boston Review ran a fascinating blog post on this theme a few days ago. It seems that one of the pieces of evidence on the side of the doomsayers is the declining vocabularies of our youth. This has been measured regularly since 1974 by the General Social Survey, and it turns out that scores on its multiple-choice Wordsum vocabulary test rose steadily for generations born between 1900 and 1950 but declined after that.

It's easy to understand why test scores rose for generations born between 1900 and 1950: schooling became far more widespread during the first half of the 20th century. But why did it decline after that? Is it because kids born after 1950 have gotten successively dumber? Claude Fischer summarizes some new research that takes advantage of Google's Ngram viewer to measure how frequently words have been used over the past century:

[The researchers] took the ten test words—most of which became relatively less common over the century—and also the words that appeared in the answers respondents were given to choose from....Each of over 20,000 respondents in the cumulative GSS survey, 1974 to 2012, got a score for how common the words were in the years between the respondent’s birth and the year he or she turned fifteen.

Dorius and colleagues found that, other things being equal, the rise in test scores from the earliest cohorts to the mid-century cohorts is largely explained by the schooling those cohorts got. And importantly, the decline in test scores from the latter cohorts to the latest ones can be explained by the declining use of certain words, especially “advanced” ones. Once both factors are taken into account, there is little difference among generations in vocabulary scores.

In other words, it's not that kids have gotten dumber. It's just that GSS has been using the same words for 40 years, and these words have become less common. The words themselves are kept secret, but apparently they aren't too hard to suss out. In case you're curious, here they are: space, broaden, emanate, edible, animosity, pact, cloistered, caprice, accustom, and allusion.

It turns out that once you adjust for how common these words have been at various points in time, the apparent drop in vocabulary scores vanishes. In fact, vocabulary scores have actually gotten higher, as the chart on the right shows. This is hardly the last word on the subject, which appears to be the topic of a vast literature, but it does go to show how careful you have to be with this kind of stuff. It's safe to say that kids these days are less knowledgeable than their parents about some things. But it's also true that they're more knowledgeable about certain other things. This should probably even out, but it doesn't. It's adults who get to form judgments about which things matter, and they naturally assume that their knowledge is important, while all the stuff the kids know that they don't is trivial and ephemeral.

That's comforting to the oldsters, but not necessarily true. Kids probably don't know less than their parents. They just know different things.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We All Hate Congress. But Why?

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 1:46 PM EDT

Steven Taylor notes today the well-known fact that 90 percent of House members are easily reelected but Congress as a whole has an approval rating only slightly higher than Ebola. But if people hate Congress so much, how is it that they seem to love their own representatives even more?

As I have observed before, it is profoundly problematic that Congress can have an approval rating of 12.9% (RCP average) and have that many noncompetitive House races. While approval ratings capture a lot of issues it is reasonable to posit that a significant part of the frustration with Congress is driven by the fact that many citizens find that their interests are not well represented in that body.

Taylor suggests that the main problem is that we have a lousy electoral system: "Single seat districts with plurality winners create poorly representative outcomes." Maybe so. But I'm curious about something. I've seen hundreds of polls that track approval ratings for Congress, and they're all uniformly terrible. But to the best of my recollection, I've never seen a poll that asks people why they disapprove of Congress. So consider this a bleg. Have I missed a good poll on this subject? Has anyone done a good study with lots of crosstabs that really dives into the question of why so many different groups all dislike Congress so much?

It Doesn't Matter Which Diet You Choose

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 12:17 PM EDT

In the category of "news you can use," Emily Oster summarizes a new study that compares weight loss on various diets. After cutting through all the muck, we get the chart on the right. The answer, it turns out, is that all of the diets are about equally effective.

So which one you choose is mostly a matter of preference. If you think you can stick to a low-carb diet, choose one of those. If you like vegetables, choose a veggie-based plan. If you think you can tolerate low fat, go for one of those. What matters isn't so much the mechanics of the diet, but whether you can stick with it over the long haul.

(If your doctor recommends a particular diet because you suffer from some particular condition, then of course this changes things. And remember, "don't be an idiot" is always an unvoiced component of all diet and health recommendations.)

As for me, I'm on the three-quarters diet. I do this about once a decade or so and then spend the succeeding decade gaining back the weight I lost. This is my third go-around. As you might guess, it's a pretty simple diet: eat less food. In particular, I try to eat about three quarters of my usual meals and snacks. I'm finding it much more annoying this time than in the past—partly because I'm working at home, where temptation is ever present, and partly because my motivation and self-discipline have deteriorated over the years. However, the precipitous collapse of my body over the past six months is providing at least some short-term motivation, and yesterday I learned that my sleep apnea is apparently much worse than it was a decade ago. Maybe weight loss will help with that. I hope so, since I had no luck with a CPAP machine back then, and I kind of doubt I'll have better luck this time around. But we'll see.

Darrell Issa is Finally Going Off His Nut

| Tue Oct. 14, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Darrell Issa's latest jihad is also one of his most peculiar: he's accusing the EPA of working too closely with environmental groups. Seriously. That's it. Here's a report from the New York Times about the "cozy" relationship between EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Republicans say the most vivid example of a cozy relationship is an email exchange [...] celebrating legal maneuvering that provided Mr. Obama with something both the E.P.A. and the environmental group wanted: a court-ordered deadline for release of a 2012 E.P.A. regulation curbing greenhouse gas emissions on future power plants — a precursor to Mr. Obama’s announcement in June. (The environmental group had joined with others to sue the E.P.A. to force the regulation, and the E.P.A. quickly settled.)

On Dec. 23, 2010, the day the settlement was announced, Mr. Doniger emailed Ms. McCarthy, “Thank you for today’s announcement. I know how hard you and your team are working to move us forward and keep us on the rails. This announcement is a major achievement.” He added, “We’ll be with you at every step in the year ahead.”

Ms. McCarthy responded, “Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience. Enjoy the holiday. The success is yours as much as mine.”

Reacting to the email exchange, Mr. Vitter said in a statement: “Who is working for whom? The key example in all of this is the settlement agreement on greenhouse gases when the N.R.D.C. sued the E.P.A., the E.P.A. settled, and the two celebrate the agreement. It doesn’t get any more blatantly obvious than that.”

Explosive! "Thanks David. I really appreciate your support and patience." Truly a smoking gun of improper influence. They used first names and everything!

Issa must really be getting desperate. I mean, normally I understand the supposed malfeasance in his investigations. I may think his charges are foolish, but at least I get it. But this time? Even in theory, what's supposed to be wrong here? An environmental group expressing pleasure at a court ruling? The EPA administrator sending back a polite note? Everybody knew all along that both sides wanted the same thing, so this is hardly a surprise. And certainly light years from scandalous.

Issa must be going off his nut because his investigations keep failing to excite anyone. Or maybe this is just designed to provide some fodder for fundraising emails for the upcoming election. It's hard to figure out what else could be going on.

Republicans Are Far More Critical of American Schools Than Democrats

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 2:23 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Libby Nelson interviews Jack Schneider, an education professor at College of the Holy Cross, about why Americans think schools are in decline despite the evidence that they're actually better than they used to be. Here's Schneider:

The first reason that people think schools are in decline is because they hear it all the time. If you hear something often enough, it becomes received wisdom, even if you can't identify the source. That rhetoric is coming from a policy machine where savvy policy leaders have figured out that the way that you get momentum is to scare the hell out of people. So reformers have gotten really good at this sky is falling rhetoric....The rhetoric there is the schools are in crisis, we are competing against nations that are going to somehow destroy us if our test scores aren't high enough, and lo and behold, policymakers have a solution.

Schneider points to a couple of pieces of evidence to back up his contention that schools today are better than in the past. The first is NAEP test scores, which have been generally rising, not falling, over the past few decades. The second is the well-known fact that people tend to think their own neighborhood schools are fine but that schools nationally are terrible. A Gallup/PDK poll confirms this perception gap.

But here's an interesting thing. Although it's true that this gap in perceptions is widespread, it's far more widespread among Republicans than Democrats. Take a look at the chart on the right, constructed from the poll numbers. When it comes to rating local schools, there's barely any difference between Democrats and Republicans. Only a small number give their local schools a poor grade. But nationally it's a whole different story. Republicans are far more likely to rate schools as disaster areas nationally.

I'm reluctant to draw too many conclusions about this without giving it some serious thought. Still, there's at least one thing we can say. This difference doesn't seem to arise from different personal perceptions of education. Both groups have similar perceptions of their own schools.1 So why are Republicans so much more likely to think that other schools are terrible? If it doesn't come from personal experience, then the most likely culprit is the media, which suggests that conservative media does far more scaremongering about education than liberal or mainstream media. That's pretty unsettling given the fact that, as near as I can tell, the mainstream media is almost unrelentingly hostile toward education.

But the truth is that I don't watch enough Fox or listen to enough Limbaugh to really know how they treat education. Is this where the partisan divide comes from? Or is it from the Christian Right newsletter circuit? Or the home school lobby? Or what?

In any case, there's more interesting stuff at the link, and Neerav Kingsland has a response here, including the basic NAEP data that shows steadily positive trends in American education since 1971.

1Or so it seems. One other possibility is that far more Republicans than Democrats send their kids to private schools. They rate these schools highly when Gallup asks, but rate other schools poorly because those are the schools they pulled their kids out of. A more detailed dive into the poll numbers might shed some light on this.

Election Rule #34: Process Gaffes Matter. Policy Gaffes Don't.

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

Last year, it was conventional wisdom that Republicans had a very good shot at gaining control of the Senate in this year's midterm election. But then GOP candidates started to falter a bit in Kansas, South Dakota, and other swing states. Charles Pierce comments on how this has played out with Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado:

The meme looked a little weak and faltering. It was time to make it strong again. And then we saw one of those remarkable moments in which the keepers of Our National Dialogue moved to shore up their own endangered credibility, thereby reviving the meme. Instead of being a demonstration that Joni Ernst's entire previous political career was built on fringe bushwah, her ability to "distance" herself from these positions was presented as a demonstration of how politically deft she is. Out in Colorado, Cory Gardner, who has spent every second of his time in politics as a proud anti-choice loon, is now ahead of incumbent Mark Udall at least in part because of the credit Gardner has accrued for shrewdly "softening" his long history of extremism. That this might be naked opportunism seems lost in the narrative somewhere. I don't think it's entirely out of line to believe that a lot of people in my business need the Senate to change hands in November to vindicate how smart they were in February.

Maybe. Or it might just be the usual preoccupation that political reporters have with process over substance. For example, Steve Benen notes today that Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes recently dodged "a straightforward question about whom she voted for in the 2012 presidential election" and got hammered for it. But in Iowa, when Ernst refused to say if she wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency or what she'd do for those who’d lose health care coverage if Obamacare is repealed, the reaction was mostly crickets.

The difference is that Grimes was clumsy over her handling of a process issue: her support for a president of her own party. Reporters feel free to go after that. Ernst, by contrast, was crafty over her handling of policy issues: in this case, environmental policy and health care policy. Likewise, Gardner is being crafty about his handling of abortion and contraceptive policy. That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don't want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy—or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate's policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

There are exceptions to this rule if a candidate says something truly loony. But the bar is pretty high for that. Generally speaking, policy views are out of bounds for political reporters, regardless of whether they've changed or whether they're transparently absurd. Ernst knows that. Grimes apparently didn't.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

There's No Ebola Vaccine Yet Because We Cut the NIH Budget Ten Years Ago

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

As we all know, the federal budget is bloated and wasteful. It needs to be cut across the board. Right?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has "slowed down" research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'" Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

Collins obviously has some skin in this game, but he's probably right. What's more, even without a vaccine we'd probably be better prepared to react to the Ebola outbreak if we hadn't spent the past decade steadily slashing funding for public health emergencies. The chart on the right, from Scientific American, tells the story.

There are consequences for budget cuts. Right now we're living through one of them.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Catblogging has become harder recently. There's no shortage of cuteness, obviously, but getting good pictures of the cuteness is tricky. The problem is simple: 55-year-old human reflexes combined with cheap-camera shutter lag are simply no match for 10-month-old kitten reflexes. This produces lots of pictures like the one on the right. You'll just have to take my word for it, but that's Hopper carrying around one of her stuffed mice. I've muted all the chirping sounds from my camera, which reliably caused them to turn their heads just as the autofocus finally whirred to its proper setting, but even so I have hundreds of photos like this one.

Still, they slow down once in a while, so catblogging isn't completely lost. On the left, Hopper is behind the drapes trying to chase down an errant bug. On the right, Hilbert is majestically surveying his space.

Americans Hold Wide Range of Opinions on Various Subjects

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 1:57 PM EDT

Ashley Parker apparently drew the short straw at the New York Times and got assigned to write that hoariest of old chestnuts: a trip through the heartland of America to check the pulse of the public.

So how's the public feeling these days? Here's Heather Lopez, a church worker in Terre Haute, Indiana:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”

Roger that. You will be unsurprised to learn later that Ms. Lopez "said she got much of her information from Fox News." Where else would she? We're in the heartland, folks! And not by coincidence. Parker's trip was deliberately designed to take her nowhere else. Because, as we all know, real people can be found only in small towns and cities in middle America.

Not that it matters. Also unsurprisingly, Parker ran into people with a wide range of opinions. It turns out that America contains lots of people and they think lots of different stuff. It's remarkable.

Was Obama Naive?

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has finally come around to a fair assessment of Barack Obama's term in office: not perfect, by any means, and he probably could have accomplished more with better tactics and a better understanding of his opponents. Still and all, he accomplished a lot. By any reasonable standard, he's been a pretty successful liberal president.

Ezra Klein says this is because he abandoned one of the key goals of his presidency:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition.

....Obama spent his first two years keeping many of his policy promises by sacrificing his central political promise. That wasn't how it felt to the administration at the time. They thought that success would build momentum; that change would beget change. Obama talked of the "muscle memory" congress would rediscover as it passed big bills; he hoped that achievements would replenish his political capital rather than drain it.

In this, the Obama administration was wrong, and perhaps naive.

This is, to me, one of the most interesting questions about the Obama presidency: was he ever serious about building a bipartisan consensus? Did he really think he could pass liberal legislation with some level of Republican cooperation? Or was this little more than routine campaign trail bushwa?

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.

(Reagan is the exception. Perhaps that's why he's still so revered by conservatives despite the fact that his actual conduct in office was considerably more pragmatic than his rhetoric.)

So when candidates say this, do they really believe it? Or does it belong in the same category as promises that you'll restore American greatness and supercharge the economy for the middle class? In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

Clearly, then, Obama was wrong about the prospects for bipartisanship. But was he naive? I'd say he's guilty of a bit of that, but the truth is that he really did end up facing a hornet's nest of unprecedented proportions. This might have taken any new president by surprise.