Kevin Drum

Man Is the Irrational Animal

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

Mark Kleiman points out that most of us need to hold more or less rational beliefs about our professional lives. "Even people whose stock-in-trade is deception—con artists, stockbrokers, lobbyists—have to observe the rules of arithmetic when it comes to totting up the take." But that's only half the story:

Most of the time, though, people aren’t at work, and much of what they think and talk about has little if any relevance to practical decisions in their own non-working lives. Freed of the need to think rationally, most people seem to prefer the alternative.

Yep. This is why, say, it costs nothing to claim that evolution is nonsense and shouldn't be taught in schools. For the 99.9 percent of us who don't work in fields that require it, evolution doesn't affect our daily lives in any way at all. Believing or not believing is affinity politics and nothing more. This explains how Donald Trump gets away with being a buffoon:

The deepest mistake is to regard someone who acts as if he doesn’t give a damn whether anything he says is true, or consistent with what he said yesterday, as stupid....As far as I can tell, Donald Trump simply isn’t bothered by holding and expressing utterly inconsistent beliefs about immigration, or for that matter denying obvious facts in the face of the crowd that witnessed them. And it doesn’t much bother most of his voters, either....And if we deal with it by imagining that Trump, or Trump voters, are “stupid,” we’re going to make some very bad predictions.

We forgive a lot in people we like. Liberals forgive Hillary Clinton for her lawyerly and incompetent defense of her email practices. Trump fans forgive the fact that he makes no sense. But forgiveness is a virtue, right? I guess that makes Trump's supporters the most virtuous folks on the planet.

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Sarah Palin: No Bible Verses for You!

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 1:38 PM EDT

Great news! Sarah Palin will be interviewing Donald Trump at 10 p.m. Eastern on her brand new show, On Point, which started Monday and airs on the One America News network. It will be the greatest, classiest, rogue-iest interview ever!

Wait. What's that? You don't get OAN on your cable system? Me neither. Bummer. Maybe it'll be on Palin's Facebook page eventually.

What makes this whole thing a little weirder than even the normal Palin weirdness is that she announced her upcoming interview with a standard-issue blast on the lamestream media for asking Trump a gotcha question about his favorite Bible verse. "By the way," she writes, "even with my reading scripture everyday I wouldn't want to answer the guy's question either... it's none of his business; it IS personal." What makes this weird is that Palin has been happy to talk about this before. For example, in this interview:

In dealing with her daily challenges, Palin leans on the Bible verse that says, “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and might and a sound mind.”

That's 2 Timothy 1:7 (close enough, anyway), and Palin has mentioned it on other occasions too. It really does seem to be one of her favorites. So why is this suddenly so personal that she doesn't think anyone should have to talk about it? Are we now all keeping our favorite Bible verses a deeply held secret?

It Turns Out That Those "Full and Unedited" Planned Parenthood Videos.... Aren't

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 12:52 PM EDT

I gave up on the Planned Parenthood sting videos a long time ago. It's pretty obvious there was no criminal behavior unmasked, or even any unethical behavior.1 The claims of the producers never matched the reality of the videos, so I stopped watching when new ones came out.

But Sarah Kliff soldiered on! She not only watched them all, she watched the full, unedited versions. And she discovered something after reading a forensic analysis of the videos from Planned Parenthood: they aren't actually full and unedited. The folks who ran the sting claim that they did nothing more than edit out bathroom breaks, but Kliff isn't buying it:

Take the first example I wrote about here, the meeting with the Texas Planned Parenthood clinic where the tape appears to jump forward a half-hour. In that case, nobody suggests a bathroom break. There's no change in meeting; when the video jumps forward, they're still sitting in the exact same seats.

Meanwhile, the longer videos show lots of small-talk footage that isn't especially relevant to the argument over fetal body parts. I know because I watched all of it. There are moments in a car, where directions are being given and all the camera footage is totally blurry, where people stand around in hallways, where they talk about the relationship between caffeine and headaches. Those moments weren't cut from the tape — and it's hard to know what would make those different from the bathroom breaks and other moments deemed irrelevant to the audience.

I guess we need a chant for this. Release the video! We demand to see the bathroom breaks! Explain the timestamps! Or something. As far as I'm concerned, Planned Parenthood has long since been exonerated in this episode, so I don't really need to see anything. But I am curious about just what they decided to leave out.

1Standard caveat: If you think abortion is murder, then everything on the video is unethical and immoral.

Blaming Culture Is a Liberal Thing? Seriously?

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 12:11 PM EDT

Over at National Review, Charles Cooke writes about the gruesome murder of WDBJ reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward on Wednesday:

As I have written over and over again during the last few years, I do not believe that we can learn a great deal from the justifications that are forwarded by public killers....Mine, however, is not the only view out there. Indeed, there is a sizeable contingent within the United States that takes the question of what murderers purport to believe extremely seriously indeed. It is because of these people that we had to examine “toxic masculinity” in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting....[etc.]

....Half-joking on Twitter, the Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch reacted to this news by observing that, “instead of going on a killing spree, this guy should’ve gotten a columnist gig at the Guardian.” As with all humor, there is some truth at the root of this barb....For what reason is this guy exempt? Why do we not need to have a “national conversation” about hypersensitivity?

The answer, I imagine, is politics, for this instinct seems only to run one way.

Generally speaking, I agree with Cooke. Crazy people are always going to find something to justify their worldview, and they're going to find it somewhere out in the real world. The fact that any particular crazy person decides to have it in for the IRS or Greenpeace or women who laughed at him in high school doesn't mean a lot. It only becomes meaningful if some particular excuse starts showing up a lot. Beyond that, I even agree that the culture of hypersensitivity has gotten out of hand in some precincts of the left.

That said....is Cooke kidding? This instinct only runs one way? After the Columbine massacre in 1999, Newt Gingrich denounced the "liberal political elite" for "being afraid to talk about the mess you have made, and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done." Conservatives have been raising Cain about the pernicious effects of Hollywood liberalism, video games, and the decline of religion for decades. Hysteria about the counterculture and liberal moral decay goes back at least to the 60s. I could go on endlessly in this vein, but I don't want to bore you.

Complaining about the effects of liberal culture—whether on shooters specifically, crime more generally, or on all of society—has been a right-wing mainstay for as long as I've been alive. The left may be catching up, but it still has a ways to go.

The Real Lesson From Emailgate: Maybe the State Department Needs More Secure Email

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

David Ignatius talked with "a half-dozen knowledgeable lawyers" and concluded that the Hillary Clinton email affair has been overblown. No big surprise there. Click the link if you want more.

But here's the curious part. Part of Clinton's trouble stems from the fact that sensitive information was sent to her via email, which isn't meant for confidential communications. However, as Ignatius points out, this is a nothingburger. Everyone does this, and has for a long time. But why?

“It’s common knowledge that the classified communications system is impossible and isn’t used,” said one former high-level Justice Department official. Several former prosecutors said flatly that such sloppy, unauthorized practices, although technically violations of law, wouldn’t normally lead to criminal cases.

Why is the classified system so cumbersome? Highly secure encryption is easy to implement on off-the-shelf PCs, and surely some kind of software that plugs into email and restricts the flow of messages wouldn't be too hard to implement. So why not build more security into email and ditch the old system? What's the hold-up?

Clarence Thomas Can't Catch a Break

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story saying that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hoisted language from briefs submitted to the court "at unusually high rates." I was curious to see the actual numbers, so I opened up the study itself. Here's the relevant excerpt from Figure 2:

I dunno. Does that look "unusually high" to you? It looks to me like it's about the same as Sotomayor, and only a bit higher than Ginsburg, Alito and Roberts. It's a little hard to see the news here, especially given this:

Since his views on major legal questions can be idiosyncratic and unlikely to command a majority, he is particularly apt to be assigned the inconsequential and technical majority opinions that the justices call dogs. They often involve routine cases involving taxes, bankruptcy, pensions and patents, in which shared wording, including quotations from statutes and earlier decisions, is particularly common.

So at most, Thomas uses language from briefs only slightly more than several other justices, and that's probably because he gets assigned the kinds of cases where it's common to do that. Is there even a story here at all?

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Either 35, 36, or 39 Percent of Psychology Results Can't Be Replicated

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 1:04 AM EDT

The Washington Post informs me today that in a new study, only 39 out of 100 published psychology studies could be replicated:

I wonder if I can replicate that headline? Let's try the New York Times:

Huh. They say 35 out of 100. What's going on? Maybe Science News can tell me:

Now it's 35 out of 97. So what is the answer?

Based on the study itself, it appears that Science News has it right. It's 35 out of 97. Using a different measure of replication, however, the answer is that 39 percent of the studies could be replicated, which might explain the Post's 39 out of 100. And it turns out that the study actually looked at 100 results, but only 97 of them had positive findings in the first place and were therefore worth trying to replicate. But if, for some reason, you decided that all 100 original studies should be counted, you'd get the Times' 35 out of 100.

So there you go. Depending on who you read, it's either 35, 36, or 39 percent. Welcome to the business of science reporting.

Joe Biden Isn't Sure He Has the "Emotional Fuel" to Run for President

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

This is the first hard evidence we have that Joe Biden is seriously thinking about a presidential run:

On Wednesday he made his first public comments on his potential 2016 run — though not intentionally. CNN posted audio recorded during what was supposed to be a private conference call for Democratic National Committee members in which the vice-president confirmed that he's actively considering entering the campaign...."We're dealing at home with ... whether or not there is the emotional fuel at this time to run," Biden responded.

I've got nothing but sympathy for what Biden is going through right now, but the fact remains: If you're not sure you have the fuel for a grueling presidential campaign, then you don't.

Donald Trump: The Bible Is Great, But, Um, Let's Not Get Into Specifics

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

As a blogger, it's hard not to love Donald Trump. Here's the latest, in an interview with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

I'm wondering what one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are and why.

Well, I wouldn't want to get into it because to me that's very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it's very personal. So I don't want to get into verses, I don't want to get into—the Bible means a lot to me, but I don't want to get into specifics.

Even to cite a verse that you like?

No, I don't want to do that.

Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?

Uh, probably....equal. I think it's just an incredible....the whole Bible is an incredible....I joke....very much so. They always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say it's my second favorite book of all time. But, uh, I just think the Bible is just something very special.

OK, it's not only Trump I love. Props also to Heilemann for asking Trump if he's an OT guy or an NT guy. Who talks about the Bible that way?

We've seen this schtick from Trump before, of course. He's stunningly ignorant, and routinely refuses to answer whenever someone asks about a factual detail more than an inch below the surface. Needless to say, he refuses because he doesn't know, but he always pretends it's for some other reason. "I don't want to insult anyone by naming names," he'll say, as if this isn't his entire stock in trade. Or, in this case, "It's personal," as if he's a guy who leads a deep personal life that he never talks about.

The interesting thing is that this schtick also shows how lazy he is. It's been evident for several days that someone was eventually going to ask him for his favorite Bible verse, but he couldn't be bothered to bone up even a little bit in order to have one on tap. Ditto for everything else. Even when he says something that's going to raise obvious questions the next day, he never bothers to learn anything about the subject. I guess he figures he's got people for that.

Of course, there is an advantage to handling things this way. By shutting down the Bible talk completely, he guarantees he'll never have to talk about it again. I mean, today it's Bible verses, tomorrow somebody might want him to name the Ten Commandments. And since it's pretty obvious that he hasn't cracked open the Bible in decades, that could get hairy pretty fast. Better to shut it down right away.

POSTSCRIPT: So which is Trump? OT or NT? I expect that he admires the OT God more. That's a deity who knows what he wants and doesn't put up with any PC nonsense about it. Plus they built a lot of stuff in the Old Testament: towers, walls, arks, temples, etc. That would appeal to Trump. On the other hand, the New Testament has all those annoying lessons about the meek inheriting the earth, rich men and needles, turning the other cheek, and a bunch of other advice that Trump has no time for.

So: Old Testament. Definitely Old Testament.

How Much Is 1.6 Months of Life Worth?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

From Carolyn Johnson at Wonkblog:

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month....

Hey, that's me! A friendly FedEx delivery person just delivered this month's $10,000 supply to me an hour ago. So, what's up?

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month, doctors have begun to ask one nagging question: Do drug prices correctly reflect the value they bring to patients by extending or improving their lives?

A study published Thursday in JAMA Oncology aims to answer that question by examining necitumumab, an experimental lung cancer drug....in a clinical trial, researchers found that adding the drug to chemotherapy extended life by 1.6 months, on average.

....In order to estimate what the price of this drug "should" be based on its value to patients, the research team modeled various scenarios....one additional year in perfect health in the U.S. is worth somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000....Based on their calculations, the drug should cost from $563 to $1,309 for a three-week cycle.

....There are many variables that go into the price of a drug, but mounting evidence suggests that the value it brings to patients is not the biggest factor. "How they price the drug is they price it at whatever the market is willing to bear," said Benjamn Djulbegovic, an oncologist at the University of South Florida.

Well, sure, but this raises the question of why the market is willing to bear such high prices. Why would an insurance company approve a large expenditure for a drug that has only a tiny benefit?

There's a lot that goes into this. Obviously some people benefit from necitumumab by a lot more than 1.6 months—and there's no way to tell beforehand who will and who won't. And it costs a lot to develop these drugs. And patients put a lot of pressure on insurers to cover anything that might help. And, in the end, insurance companies don't have a ton of incentive to push back: if drug prices go up, they increase their premiums. It doesn't really affect their bottom line much.

There's also the size of the total market to consider. The chemo drug I'm currently taking, for example, is only used for two conditions. There's just not a whole lot of us using it. In cases like that, a drug is going to be pretty expensive.

But here's something I'm curious about: who puts more pressure on insurance companies to cover expensive drugs, patients or doctors? My doctor, for example, was totally gung-ho about my current med. I was much less so after I read some of the clinical studies online. Why? Because most chemo drugs have unpleasant side effects (though mine has turned out OK so far), which means that, like many patients, I'm reluctant to take them unless the benefit is pretty clear cut. Doctors, on the other hand, just want to do whatever they can to help, and have no particular incentive to hold back. So maybe it's doctors who need to be in the forefront of pushing back on expensive drugs. They're the ones in the doctor-patient relationship who know the most, after all.