Kevin Drum

Lucy and the Great 10% Myth

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan reminds me of something I was curious about the other day. He quotes Jeffrey Kluger, who writes in Time that he's annoyed with the movie Lucy because it perpetuates the ridiculous myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. I sympathize. I was sort of annoyed just by seeing that in the trailer. But it did make me wonder: where did this urban legend come from, anyway? Wikipedia to the rescue:

One possible origin is the reserve energy theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis...William James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential....In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas summarized this idea...."Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability."

In the 1970s, psychologist and educator Georgi Lozanov, proposed the teaching method of suggestopedia believing "that we might be using only five to ten percent of our mental capacity."....According to a related origin story, the 10% myth most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of neurological research in the late 19th century or early 20th century. For example, the functions of many brain regions (especially in the cerebral cortex) are complex enough that the effects of damage are subtle, leading early neurologists to wonder what these regions did.

Huh. So we don't really know for sure. That's disappointing but not surprising. It's remarkable how often we don't know where stuff like this comes from.

As for its continuing popular resonance, I have a theory of my own. There are an awful lot of people out there with remarkable—and apparently innate—mental abilities. They can multiply enormous numbers in their heads. They can remember every day of their lives. That kind of thing. And yet, they operate normally in other regards. The fact that they've stored, say, distinct memories of the past 15,000 days of their lives doesn't seem to take up any cerebral space or energy that they needed for anything else. So surely all that storage and retrieval capacity is just sitting around unused in the rest of us?

No, it's not. But the idea resonates because freakish mental skills seem to be so much further out on the bell curve than freakish physical skills. It makes the whole 10 percent thing seem pretty plausible. And that's why it sticks around.

POSTSCRIPT: Or does it? I mean, has anyone tried to find out how many people still believe this myth? For all I know, everyone has long been aware that it's not true. We need a poll!

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An Awful Lot of People Think Obama Is Bored With Being President

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

You have to give the Fox News polling operation credit for mixing things up in an interesting way sometimes. At first glance, their latest poll is just a collection of all the usual leading questions about Obama busting up the Constitution, Obama being a loser compared to Vladimir Putin, Obama being incompetent, etc. etc. This is mostly yawn-worthy stuff intended as fodder for their anchors. All that's missing is a question about whether Obama plays too much golf. But then there's this:

Who else would think to ask a question like that? But it's kind of fascinating, really. And what's most fascinating is that it's barely partisan at all. In virtually every group, something like 40 percent of the respondents think Obama is bored with the whole presidenting thing. That goes for Democrats as well as Republicans; for blacks as well as whites; for the rich as well as the poor; and for liberals as well as conservatives. It's not quite a majority in any group—though it's pretty close among Hispanics and senior citizens—but an awful lot of people sure are convinced that Obama has already checked out of the Oval Office. He might want to do something about that.

GDP Increases At a Smart 4.0% Rate in Second Quarter

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

Here's something that counts as good news: GDP increased in the second quarter at an annual rate of 4.0 percent. At the same time, the first quarter numbers were revised to a slightly less horrible -2.1 percent growth rate. This means, roughly speaking, that the economy has grown about 1.9 percent over the first half of the year.

Now, this is obviously nothing to write home about. A growth rate of 1 percent per quarter is pretty anemic. Still, it's better than expectations after the terrible Q1 numbers, and the rebound in Q2 suggests there really was some make-up growth. A fair amount of this growth came from inventory build-up, which is normally a reason for caution, but after two previous quarters of inventory decline it's probably not the warning sign it might otherwise be.

All in all, this is decent news. It's still not possible to say that the economy is roaring along or anything, but the Q1 number now looks like it really was an anomaly. Slowly and sluggishly, the economy is continuing to recover for the ~95 percent of us who haven't been unemployed for months or who haven't given up and exited the labor force entirely. For those people, economic growth is still slow enough to leave them behind. One good quarter is nice, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Republicans Still Holding Up Virtually All Obama Appointments

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 1:52 AM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein notes today that although filibuster reform has technically given Democrats the ability to confirm any executive branch appointment, in practice Republicans can still tie up the Senate by insisting on lengthy parliamentary delays for every nominee. And that's what they're doing:

Senate Republicans continue to impose an across-the-board virtual hold on every executive branch nomination....Republican foot-dragging has created a backlog of more than 100 nominees, almost none of whom are controversial, and some of whom have been waiting since January for Senate floor action.

....I understand that Republicans are upset about the Democrats' filibuster reform. It has robbed them of leverage over nominations — even if it's entirely their own fault for having abused that leverage. But Republicans aren’t harming Senate majority leader Harry Reid by blocking nominations. They’re harming the functioning of the U.S. government. (Perhaps it might be nice to have ambassadors appointed in a few important nations?) And they are needlessly, cruelly, messing with people’s lives. On top of all that, they’re eliminating the leverage of individual Senators. As Ted Cruz (maybe) just learned, there’s no point putting an individual hold on a nomination that is already being held up by the entire Republican caucus.

And why? For the sake, as far as I can tell, of a tantrum.

Pretty much. But this is what they've been doing all along. The point of filibustering everything and everyone has never been just to prevent a few objectionable candidates from being confirmed. It's been to tie up Senate floor time and disrupt even the routine functioning of a federal government that's under Democratic control. Even with filibuster reform they can still do that, so why should they stop now? A broken government is nothing but good news for Republicans.

Bernstein says in another post today that he's tired of hearing about political polarization. It's not really anything new, after all. That's true enough, and this is a good example. It's not a case of polarization, it's just a straightforward case of assholery. There's no principle or ideology behind this, they're merely causing dysfunction for the sake of causing dysfunction. Welcome to the modern GOP.

My Ten-Dollar Offer to the Halbig Truthers

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 8:31 PM EDT

There's no question that the statutory text of Obamacare contains a mistake. In one of its sections, it authorizes federal subsidies only for taxpayers who enroll through a state-based exchange, not for those who enroll through the federal exchange. But was it really a mistake? Brian Beutler comments:

Right-wing activists have spent the last several months fabricating a rival narrativea ludicrous theory of intent, in which leading Democrats meant to condition the subsidies, but decided to keep the inducement a secret from reporters, back bench members, governors, budget analysts, and health care reform advocates. This kind of deceptive argumentation is perhaps to be expected from activists. What's become incredibly frustrating to me about the Halbig brouhaha in the last few days is watching the conservative health care writers who were in the same trenches watching the same debate unfoldattempting, from a very skeptical vantage point, to explain the bill correctlysuddenly turn around and vouchsafe the Halbig Truthers.

That suggests something to me. As far as I know, not a single reporter who covered the Obamacare battle believes that Congress intended to restrict subsidies to state exchanges. As Beutler says, "To the extent that the question wasn’t probed widely, if at all, it's because that would've been almost like asking whether the subsidies were intended to be denominated in Rubles." Sarah Kliff agrees: "It was never a question, during the five years I've spent writing about Obamacare, whether this would be case." Nobody in Congress questioned the universality of subsidies. Nobody in the executive branch questioned it. No governors questioned it. None of the bureaucrats tasked with building the exchanges questioned it. And nobody in the press questioned it.

And that brings me to my suggestion: Is it really true that no one in the press questioned it? For the moment, let's forget about liberals. Hell, everyone knows we're in the bag for Obamacare, and by now we've probably scrubbed all our old posts of damning evidence. Ditto for the mainstream media. They're just shills for Obama anyway. But how about conservatives? They covered the Obamacare battle pretty obsessively too. Here's my guess: every single article written by conservatives between January 2009 and March 2010 (a) assumed that subsidies were universal and (b) never so much as mentioned the possibility that they weren't. In other words, they all believed in universal subsidies too because there was never any reason in their reporting to believe otherwise. Not one single reason.

But maybe I'm wrong! So here's my offer: I will send a crisp, new ten-dollar bill to anyone who can point out a conservative who so much as suspected that subsidies were limited to state exchanges prior to March 2010. Surely that's incentive enough? Let's start digging up evidence, people.

The Forgotten Murder Trial of the NRA's Top Lawyer

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 4:48 PM EDT

Robert J. Dowlut is the NRA's top lawyer, a "human encyclopedia" on the subject of state gun laws and the man responsible for much of the gun lobby's success in a series of court cases that have steadily eroded restrictions on gun ownership in the United States. "He is a really reliable and exhaustive source for legal input on the issue," says one admirer.

But 50 years ago, according to a pile of court documents MoJo's Dave Gilson uncovered for "The NRA's Murder Mystery," a teenage Dowlut had a rather different relationship with guns:

Shortly before dark on the evening of April 17, 1963, Robert J. Dowlut went looking for a gun inside the city cemetery in South Bend, Indiana. Making his way through the headstones, he stopped in front of the abandoned Studebaker family mausoleum. He knelt by the front right corner of the blocky gray monument and lifted a stone from the damp ground. Then, as one of the two police detectives accompanying him later testified, the 17-year-old "used his hands and did some digging." He unearthed a revolver and ammunition. As Dowlut would later tell a judge, the detectives then took the gun, "jammed it in my hand," and photographed him. "They were real happy."

Two days earlier, a woman named Anna Marie Yocum had been murdered in her South Bend home. An autopsy determined she had been shot three times, once through the chest and twice in the back, likely at close range as she'd either fled or fallen down the stairs from her apartment. Two .45-caliber bullets had pierced her heart.

....The following morning, Dowlut was charged with first-degree murder. A year and a half later, a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. Before the judge handed down a life sentence, he asked the defendant if there was any reason why he shouldn't be put away. Dowlut replied, "I am not guilty." A day later, the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City registered Dowlut, now 19, as prisoner number 33848.

Less than six years later, Robert Dowlut would be a free man—his murder conviction thrown out by the Indiana Supreme Court because of a flawed police investigation. The court ordered a new trial, but one never took place. Dowlut would return to the Army and go on to earn college and law degrees. Then he would embark on a career that put him at the epicenter of the movement to transform America's gun laws.

Click the link to read the whole story.

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Guns and Doctors: A Follow-Up

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Aaron Carroll responds to my skeptical take on doctors asking patients about their gun ownership:

I think you ask legitimate questions, but these are consensus things that pediatricians ask about. You’re thinking like an adult, and not as a parent.

I don’t know if internists ask adults about guns. I doubt they do. But pediatricians do ask parents. They also ask if parents have talked about street safety. They ask if they keep chemicals out of reach of their children. They ask if they’ve checked the temperature of the hot water heater. They ask about water safety, bathtubs, and talk about drowning. Fire safety. Bike safety. Car safety (including airbags). I could go on and on and on.

This is what pediatricians do. You may be too far removed from that to remember, but it is! Read Bright Futures. It’s hundreds of pages long.

In my post, I was mostly thinking about adult doctors, not pediatricians, though I suppose both were on my mind. In any case, this is an obvious distinction, and I thought it was worth passing along.

Quote of the Day: "The Press Loves to Cover Her Hard"

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 2:49 PM EDT

Dave Weigel notes that the media is still obsessed with Hillary Clinton's comment about being "dead broke" when she and Bill left the White House:

They've got to be sick of this by now. Maggie Haberman had it nailed three weeks ago: Hillary Clinton was "still raw over the partisan wars that hindered her husband’s legacy and left the couple with millions of dollars in legal debt." Her answer, as she told Ramos, was accurate, and it's baffling to her that this became a "gaffe." As she continued her tour, HarperCollins was printing up copies of Clinton, Inc., a tell-all by the Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper. On Page 18, Halper recalls that in 2001 "the Clintons were broke, owing a fortune in legal fees from the many investigations into their personal lives," and that they had to be loaned $1.3 by Terry McAuliffe. Until just a month ago, that was how even conservatives remembered the Clintons' departure from the White House.

What's the deal with this? Sure, Hillary could have responded to questions about her wealth a little better. She's not the natural politician Bill is. But really, there's not much else here. So why does it continue to be news a full month later? Uber-insider Mark Halperin explains:

She has a lot of positive attributes that are currently just being overwhelmed by all this negative coverage. And it’s going to keep going. The momentum—there’s, there’s— The press loves to cover her hard.

This comes courtesy of Bob Somerby, who's been following this ever since the initial flood-the-zone coverage of Hillary's "gaffe" in the Washington Post. Somerby tells the rest of the story:

Multimillionaire TV stars asked if voters would support a person as wealthy as Clinton. In response to Clinton’s answers, some of the nation’s most famous pundits launched their famous “gaffe culture.”

The Washington Post even launched a front-page jihad concerning the size of Clinton’s speaking fees. In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd assailed Clinton for her “rapacious” behavior and her “wanton acquisitiveness,” which she was said to be passing along to her daughter.

....Halperin made a starting suggestion—he suggested the press corps’ coverage of a major candidate could determine the outcome of our next White House campaign.

Plainly, that’s what happened in Campaign 2000, when a twenty-month war against Candidate Gore let George Bush reach the White House. In the main, that war was conducted by the mainstream press corps, not by the RNC.

The press corps’ poisonous war against Gore let Bush reach the White House. But it’s a basic law of the guild: Major journalists never suggest that the behavior of their own guild could have such startling effects.

The media's preoccupation with the Clintons' wealth won't last forever. Even for the Washington press corps, it's too transparently silly to pretend that it's somehow surprising that a presidential candidate is wealthy. But Somerby and Halperin are right: it's a sign of things to come. The press has never liked Hillary, and she's never liked them, and that's that. If she decides to run for president, this is going to be one of her biggest problems—or maybe her biggest, period. She's just never going to catch a break.

Should Doctors Ask You About Your Guns?

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 12:47 PM EDT

In Florida, it's illegal for a physician to ask you if you own a gun. Pediatrician Aaron Carroll thinks this is ridiculous:

When pediatricians ask you about using car seats, they’re trying to prevent injuries. When they ask you about how your baby sleeps, they’re trying to prevent injuries. When they ask you about using bike helmets, they’re trying to prevent injuries. And when they ask you about guns, they’re trying to prevent injuries, too.

....When I ask patients and parents whether they own guns, if they tell me they do, I immediately follow up with questions about how they are stored. I want to make sure they’re kept apart from ammunition. I want to make sure they’re in a locked box, preferably in a place out of reach of children. Doing so minimizes the risks to children. That’s my goal.

When we, as physicians, ask you if you drink or smoke, it’s not so that we can judge you. It’s so we can discuss health risks with you. When we ask you about domestic violence, it’s not to act like police detectives. It’s so that we can help you make better choices for your health. When we ask you about what you eat or whether you exercise, it’s so we can help you live better and longer. We’re doctors; it’s our job.

I don't often disagree with Carroll, but I think I might here. Not about Florida's law: that really is ridiculous. The state may have an interest in making sure doctors don't give demonstrably bad advice, but it certainly doesn't have a legitimate interest in preventing them from asking simple, fact-oriented question. This represents prior restraint on non-commercial speech, and as such it's beyond the pale.

That said, should physicians ask about gun ownership? I'm not so sure. Carroll says he only wants to discuss "health risks," and that's appropriate. Doctors have expertise in the area of human health: that is, the biology and physiology of the human body. But that's not the same thing as the safety of the human body.

Not only do doctors have no special professional expertise in this area, but it's simply too wide open. Does your car have air bags? Do you ever jaywalk? Have you checked your electrical outlets lately? Is your house built to withstand an earthquake? Do you know how to work safely on your roof? Do you make sure to watch your kids in the pool? Are you planning any trips to eastern Ukraine?

I could go on forever in this vein. These are things unrelated to human physiology. If you define them all as health risks, you're simply defining every aspect of life as a health risk, and therefore your doctor's concern. That goes too far, and I don't blame people for sometimes reacting badly to it. There are certainly gray areas here, but generally speaking, if I want advice about my health, I'll see a doctor. If I want advice about gun safety, I'll talk to a gun pro. I think it might be best to leave it this way.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My view is almost certainly colored by the fact that I'm all but phobic about doctors. I hate visiting them, I hate talking to them, and I hate the fact that they never seem to really, truly respond to what I tell them. I would be very annoyed if a doctor suddenly veered off and started quizzing me about general safety issues.

I'm keenly aware that this is an obvious overreaction on my part, and I do my best to restrain it when I'm actually talking to a doctor. Nonetheless, it's there.

Color Me Skeptical About a Guaranteed Income for All

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 11:50 AM EDT

Should we have a guaranteed minimum income in the United States? Something nice and simple that would replace nearly our entire current alphabet soup of means-tested welfare programs?1 Dylan Matthews posts about this frequently, and others chime in occasionally as well. It even has some support among conservatives.

I am not so sure, myself. Keith Humphreys makes a couple of good points here, but I want to step back a bit. At a bare minimum, I need answers to four questions:

  1. How big would it be?
  2. Is it a family benefit or a personal benefit?
  3. Is it for adults only, or would children also qualify for a benefit?
  4. How would it phase out with income?

There are many more details to work out, all of them important, but I don't think you can even begin to talk about this without answers to these four basic questions.

I'm skeptical about the whole thing because I don't think you can make the details work out. Nor do I think that it's politically feasible either now or in the future.2 What's more, I'm always skeptical of ideas like this that haven't been adopted by any other country, even the ones with far more liberal welfare states than ours. I figure there must be a reason for this.

But I'm happy to be proven wrong. Just give me a policy skeleton to work with. What exactly are we talking about here?

1Proponents usually (but not always) make exceptions for education and health care, which are too variable and too expensive to be handled by a simple minimum income.

2Perhaps it's feasible in our far-distant robot future. Maybe even necessary. For now, though, let's stick to the medium-term future.