Kevin Drum

Immigration, ISIS, and Ebola: A Perfect Right-Wing Storm

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 12:31 PM EDT

Here is Republican congressman Tom Cotton, currently running for a Senate seat in Arkansas:

Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism.

And here is Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, currently running for reelection in California:

At least ten ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the border in Texas.

You will be unsurprised to learn that neither of these things is true. They were just invented out of whole cloth, much like Rep. Phil Gingrey's fear that immigrant children might be bringing Ebola across the border. And I think we can expect more of it. The confluence of immigration, ISIS, and Ebola is like catnip to the Republican base. It appeals to their deepest fears. It demonstrates how feckless President Obama is. And it confirms that we need to be far more hawkish about national security. What's not to like?

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You Should Avoid Doctors and Judges in the Late Morning

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

We already know that judges become considerably more severe in their sentencing as the morning wears on and they get tired and hungry. Today, Susannah Locke passes along a new tidbit of research showing that doctors prescribe more antibiotics as the morning wears on. Why? Probably because they're making poorer decisions thanks to growing fatigue, or perhaps giving in more easily to patients who are demanding a damn pill even if it won't do any good.

So here's your choice. If you want your doctor to do something you think they probably don't want to do, make an appointment for late morning or late afternoon. There's a better chance they'll just give up and give you what you want. On the other hand, if you actually want a proper diagnosis, your best bet is early morning or, in a pinch, right after lunch.

This has been your latest installment of news you can use. I wonder if this advice also applies to bloggers?

Is Another Housing Bubble Sneaking Up On Us?

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 11:52 PM EDT

Nick Timiraos points to an interesting IMF chart today. It breaks the world into two sorts of countries. The first, which includes the US, UK, Spain, and others, saw a big housing bubble during the aughts and a big housing bust during the Great Recession. The second, which includes Canada, Germany, and others, had only a modest runup in housing prices during the aughts and a correspondingly small decline during the Great Recession.

So what's happening now? Well, countries that already had a housing bubble continue to struggle. Housing prices today are more than 20 percent below their 2007 peak. And the other countries? Well, they're having their own housing bubble now, with prices nearly 30 percent higher than their previous peak.

Is this a problem? Maybe. With the exception of China, the IMF reckons that housing prices in the rebounding economies are still only modestly overvalued. Still, it sure looks as though there was a big pot of money chasing returns in one set of countries in the aughts, contributing significantly to the housing bubble. Now, with those countries no longer looking very attractive, the pot of money has moved on. More sensible controls on mortgages are supposedly what saved these other countries from the mid-aughts bubble, but I wonder if that's enough now that lots of money is apparently sloshing its way in their direction? Stay tuned.

Does Amazon Have to Pay Workers for Going Through Its Security Lines? The Supreme Court Is About to Decide

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Here's the newest front in the war to pay low-wage workers even less:

The latest battle, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, was launched by former warehouse workers for Amazon.com, who argue they should have been paid for the time they spent waiting in security lines after their shifts....Those security lines could take more than half an hour, the workers said, and that was time when they should have been getting paid.

....Amazon said it would not comment due to the pending litigation, but a spokesperson said the "data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait."

Well now. If employees truly walk though security screenings with "little or no wait," then it wouldn't cost Amazon anything to pay them for that time. So why are they fighting this? Perhaps it's because Amazon is lying. Sometimes the wait really is substantial, and Amazon doesn't want to (a) pay more security guards to speed up the lines or (b) pay workers for the time spent in slowpoke lines.

So this really does seem like a simple case. If Amazon is telling the truth, they should have no objection to paying employees for time spent in line. If they're lying, then they should be given an incentive to speed up the security process—and the best incentive I can think of is to pay employees for time spent in line. Either way, the answer is the same: pay employees for time spent in security lines.

Needless to say, the Supreme Court will figure out a way to spend a hundred pages making this more complicated so that they can justify a different ruling. After all, it wouldn't do to allow workers to get above their stations, would it?

Chart of the Day: Overweight Teenagers Earn Less as Adults

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Here's a stunning chart for you. It comes from a paper by a team of Swedish researchers, and it shows the relationship between earnings and weight among men. As you can see, adult earnings reach a peak around a BMI of 23—smack in the middle of the normal weight range—and then steadily decline as you get more overweight. But here's the kicker:

In particular, we contribute to the existing literature by showing that there is a large labor market weight-related penalty also for males, but only for those who were already overweight or obese in adolescence. We replicated this pattern using additional data sets from the United Kingdom and the United States, where the results were strikingly similar. The UK and U.S. estimates also confirm that the penalty is unique to those who were overweight or obese early in life.

The earnings penalty for overweight (and underweight!) men isn't due to simple discrimination. Men who become overweight as adults face no special career penalty. It's only a problem for men who become overweight as teenagers. The Economist summarizes the paper's conclusions:

At first glance, a sceptic might be unconvinced by the results. After all, within countries the poorest people tend to be the fattest....But the authors get around this problem by mainly focusing on brothers....They also include important family characteristics like the parents' income. All this statistical trickery allows the economists to isolate the effect of obesity on earnings.

So what does explain the “obesity penalty”? They reckon that discrimination in the labour market is not that important. Neither is health. Instead they emphasise what psychologists call “noncognitive factors”—motivation, popularity and the like. Having well-developed noncognitive factors is associated with success in the labour market. The authors argue that obese children pick up fewer noncognitive skills—they are less likely, say, to be members of sports teams or they may face discrimination from teachers.

In other words, social ostracism of both underweight and overweight teenagers produces lower cognitive skills and lower noncognitive (i.e., social) skills, and this in turn leads to lower earnings as adults. It may seem like harmless teenage clique behavior, but it has real consequences.

Spending During a Recession Is an Even Better Idea Than We Thought

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 10:59 AM EDT

Matt O'Brien points today to a new paper that tries to estimate the value of the fiscal multiplier during recessions. The multiplier is a number that tells us how effective government spending is. For example, if the government spends a dollar on donuts, and then the baker uses part of that dollar to buy sugar, and then the sugar distributor uses part of that to pay her truckers, then the original dollar of government spending might spur total spending of more than a dollar.

On the other hand, if government spending simply takes a dollar out of the pockets of taxpayers, the net effect might be zero. Total spending might not change at all.

The value of the multiplier during the Great Recession has been a subject of considerable dispute over the past few years, but a new trio of researchers has produced an estimate higher than most previous ones:

Riera-Crichton, Vegh, and Vuletin took this analysis a step further. They focused squarely on countries that, between 1986 and 2008, had both been in a recession and increased spending. This last point is critical. Stimulus, remember, is supposed to be countercyclical: the government spends more when the economy shrinks. But historically-speaking, countries have actually cut spending about half the time that they've been in a slump. So counting all that austerity as "stimulus," as most do, gives us a misleadingly low estimate of the multiplier, something like 1.3. But it turns out, based on this new better sample, that the multiplier is really around 2.3 during a garden-variety recession, and 3.1 during a severe one.

Hmmm. I can't say that I understand this. Every estimate of the fiscal multiplier I've seen acknowledges that it's different during recessions. And why would previous research have included countries that cut spending during a recession? This is a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, if this new paper really does do a better job of estimating the multiplier, then it makes a very strong case that stimulus spending during a recession—especially a severe one—is critical to recovery. America's obsession with austerity starting in 2011 is probably a big reason our recovery was so weak, and cutting spending now, as the eurozone is doing even as its economy decays yet again, is the worst thing they could do.

More infrastructure spending, please. After all, why not do it now when it's practically a free lunch?

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BREAKING: Wall Street Is a Sinkhole of Corruption and Fraud

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 1:26 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on the latest in Wall Street malfeasance:

With evidence mounting that a number of foreign and American banks colluded to alter the price of foreign currencies, the largest and least regulated financial market, prosecutors are aiming to file charges against at least one bank by the end of the year, according to interviews with lawyers briefed on the matter. Ultimately, several banks are expected to plead guilty.

....The charges will most likely focus on traders and their bosses rather than chief executives.

Ha ha ha. That goes without saying. Everyone knows that the CEOs of big banks know absolutely nothing about what's actually going on in their banks.

In any case, I think we might all have an easier time from now on if we wrote stories explaining which areas of banking aren't under investigation for collusion and gobsmacking levels of fraud and corruption. You know, just to save time.

Your Lesson for the Day: If You Decline to Use Military Force, You've "Kind of Lost Your Way"

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 6:45 PM EDT

Today the Washington Post summarizes a new book by Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense in the Obama administration, as well as an interview Panetta gave to Susan Page of USA Today:

By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country, he “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” Panetta told USA Today, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State.

....The USA Today interview was the first of what inevitably will be a series as he promotes his book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” which is sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Syria and the advance of the Islamic State. “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war” that will also sweep in conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, he told the paper.

My first thought when I read this was puzzlement: Just what does Panetta think those US troops would have accomplished if they'd stayed in Iraq? Nobody ever seems to have a very concrete idea on that score. There's always just a bit of vague hand waving about how of course they would have done....something....something....something.....and stopped the spread of ISIS. But what?

My second thought was the same as Joe Biden's: would it kill guys like Panetta to at least wait until Obama is out of office before airing all their complaints? Do they have even a smidgen of loyalty to their ex-boss? But I suppose that ship sailed long ago, so there's not much point in griping about it.

In the end, what really gets me is this, where Panetta talks about Obama's foreign policy legacy:

"We are at a point where I think the jury is still out," Panetta says. "For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. ... But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it's been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.

"He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that's the case. And if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration."

Think about this. Panetta isn't even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries—then he's a "strong leader on security issues." But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn't acquitted itself too well over the past few years—in that case he's "kind of lost his way."

That's the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don't even seem to realize they feel this way. It's just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we're addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.

5 Percent of Religious Americans Routinely Try to Fool God

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 2:16 PM EDT

Speaking of phone surveys, surely a survey conducted by LifeWay, a Christian retailer based in Nashville, TN, should be one that we can rely on. So what was LifeWay curious about? Prayer. In particular: how often you pray; what you pray for; and whether your prayers are answered. The chart on the right, perhaps one of my all time favorites, shows what people said they prayed for.

Some of these are unexceptionable. Praying for your enemies is supposedly a Christian sort of thing to do (assuming you're praying for their redemption, of course). Praying to win the lottery is pretty standard stuff. And despite mountains of evidence that God doesn't really care who wins the Super Bowl, there's always been plenty of praying for that too.

But finding a good parking spot? Seriously? There's also a fair amount of Old Testament vengeance on display here. But my favorite is the 5 percent of respondents who prayed for success in something they knew wouldn't please God.

This is great. Apparently these folks are more willing to be honest with a telephone pollster than with God despite the fact that God already knows. If it displeases Him, then that's that. You aren't going to fool Him into making it happen anyway. I'm also intrigued by the 20 percent who prayed for success in something they "put almost no effort in." That's fabulous! Not that they did it, mind you. That's just human nature. But that they were willing to fess up to this to a telephone pollster. Is there anything people aren't willing to confide to telephone pollsters?

Anyway, another chart tells us that 25 percent of those who pray say their prayers are answered all the time. All the time! This is terrific, and I want to meet one of these people. God has not been noticeably receptive to me lately, and I could use some help from someone with a 100 percent batting average.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, is it really possible that virtually none of these folks ever prayed for their health to improve? Or is that too risky to admit, since usually it's fairly obvious when it doesn't work?

Americans Are Rebelling Against Phone Surveys

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

Carl Bialik reports on the state of the state in political polling:

Fifteen pollsters told us their response rates for election polls this year and in 2012. The average response rate this year is 11.8 percent — down 1.9 percentage points from 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but when fewer than one in seven people responded to polls in 2012, there wasn’t much room to drop. It’s a decline of 14 percent, and it’s consistent across pollsters — 12 of the 15 reported a decline, and no one reported an increase.

These results are consistent with what pollsters have reported for years: that people are harder to reach by phone, and are less likely to want to talk to strangers when they are reached. Here, the pollsters show just how quickly response rates have fallen in only two years.

I assume the problem here is twofold. First, there are too many polls. A few decades ago it might have seemed like a big deal to get a call from a Gallup pollster. Sort of like being a Nielsen family. Today it's not. Polls are now conducted so frequently, and the public has become so generally media savvy, that it's just sort of a nuisance.

More generally, there are just too many spam phone calls. The Do Not Call Registry was a great idea, but there are (a) too many loopholes, including for pollsters, and (b) too many spammers who don't give a damn. When the registry first went on line, my level of spam phone calls dropped dramatically. Since then, however, it's gradually increased and is now nearly as bad as it ever was. I won't even pick up the phone anymore if Caller ID suggests it's a commercial call of some variety. Nor is there much likelihood that this situation is going to improve as long as the spammers are smart enough not to call Chuck Schumer's cell phone.

So perhaps polling is going to end up being a victim of its own success. During election years I get two or three calls a month from pollsters, which is pretty remarkable if I'm anything close to average. It means pollsters are making something like 100 million or more calls per month across the country. Is that possible? It hardly seems like it. Maybe I'm an outlier. But one way or another, it's a big number, and it's no wonder that people are hanging up on them in droves.